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By Jorge Casuso
November 7, 2022 -- Efforts to settle a landmark voting rights lawsuit against the City have hit a major roadblock no matter who wins Tuesday's race for three open City Council seats, The Lookout has learned.
Councilmember Phil Brock said Sunday that he will not vote to settle the six-year-old California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit before the California Supreme Court, likely eliminating the fourth vote needed to implement district-based electiions.
"We have no money to settle the CVRA," Brock said, stressing that he still supports district elections. "I can't see any justification for a settlement before a decision by the Supreme Court.
"At this point I believe we just play it out," Brock said, adding that he expects to court to rule against the City and in favor of districts. "So I will not support a compromise at this point."
Brock's change of position caught Kevin Shenkman, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, by surprise.
"The voting rights case has never been about money -- to me, my co-counsel or the Pico Neighborhood Association we represent," Shenkman wrote in an email to The Lookout. "The case is, and has always been, about voting rights."
"As Councilmember Brock knows well, had the City of Santa Monica brought its elections into compliance with the California Voting Rights Act when we first raised the issue in 2015, or even in 2016, it could have done so for $0.00.
"Instead, past city councils decided to spend a reported $15 million on expensive attorneys to protect their own power at the expense of the voting rights of minorities throughout California," Shenkman said.
Efforts to drop the lawsuit filed by Latino activists and replace at-large Council elections with voting districts have so far failed to win a majority on the Council.
The fourth necessary vote has proved elusive after Brock, along with Councilmembers Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra were swept into office two years ago on a platform that included voter districts.
Supporters of the lawsuit -- which could have major implications for minority voting rights across the state -- were hoping a settlement would soon be reached if slow-growth activist Armen Melkonians is elected Tuesday.
"District elections are the only way to introduce true accountability into our City government," Melkonians said in a statement. "Implementing District Elections will also be key in eliminating big money from our city council campaigns.
"I am embarrassed by the arguments advanced by the city's attorneys in the case, as they seek to deny voting rights to minority communities throughout California and the other states that have adopted laws modeled on the California Voting Rights Act.
"I expect that if we do nothing, the California Supreme Court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs and our city will be required to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys tens of millions of dollars for their work over the past seven years," Melkonians said.
"If we are proactive, we can make this process and liability manageable; if we do not, it will turn into a crisis."
Offers to settle the case filed by Latino activists in 2016 have so far failed to win support from a shifting Council majority.
The plaintiffs' atttorneys made the first request for fees and expenses in a motion filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in June 2019 seeking $22.3 million ("Voting Rights Attorneys Seeks More than $22 Million i Legal Costs," June 4, 2019).
The move came after Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ruled that Santa Monica's at large election system discriminates against Latino voters ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).
In an open letter in May 2020 -- shortly after the Council was forced to slash its budget due to the coronavirus shutdown -- Shenkman invited the Council "to make the right decision" and "drop the ill-conceived appeal" ("An Open Letter to the Santa Monica City Council," May 8, 2020).
Shenkman estimated the City had spent more than $10 million on its high-powered law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and offered to help implement the district elections ordered by the court and "be reasonable in accommodating the City’s payment of our attorneys’ fees."
In July, the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the trial court decision, which the plaintiffs appealed to the State Supreme Court. ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).
Shortly after the November 3 election saw three new Councilmembers who backed voting districts swept into office, Shenkman renewed his offer. But the three newly elected supporters of voting districts failed to drum up a fourth vote.
Their efforts were set back in January 2021, when the Council in a 4 to 2 vote determined de la Torre had a common law conflict of interest in the case filed by his wife the the organization he headed ("Council Votes to Exclude de la Torre from Closed Sessions on Voting Rights Case," January 26, 2021).
De la Torre sued the City, and in June 2022, a Los Angeles County Superior Court issued a tentative ruling rejecting the City's contention ("De la Torre Scores Key Victory in Conflict of Interest Case," June 17, 2022).
The following month, de la Torre and the City reached a settlement agreement paving the way for de la Torre to participate in meetings, deliberations and decisions on the case ("De la Torre Free to Take Part in Voting Rights Lawsuit Decisions," July 20, 2022).
But the three new Councilmembers who supported district elections still lacked a fourth vote after Lana Negrete, who was appointed to the Council in June 2021, declined to join them.
Proponents hoped Melkonians would cast the fourth vote if he is elected on Tuesday, but Brock has dashed those hopes by changing his position on settling the case.
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