Santa Monica and Malibu activists have filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica to try to force the city to move to district-based elections.

According to a press release issued Tuesday morning, the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), Maria Loya, and Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) filed the suit in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Loya ran for College Board in 2014 and came in last with 9,242 votes or about 13 percent. Andrew Walzer took fourth out of four possible slots with 11,114 votes or about 15.5 percent. Loya also lost a campaign for City Council in 2004 placing seventh out of 16 candidates.

In a statement, Loya said the current system of citywide elections is biased and specifically disenfranchises residents of the traditionally minority heavy Pico neighborhood.

“As a mother, former city council candidate and resident of the Pico Neighborhood, I want to ensure that future elections are fair,” she said. “The current at-large election system is illegal and has led to a lack of representation in local government, which in turn has led to neglect of our community. All residents and every neighborhood can benefit from a neighborhood-centered approach to representative democracy.”

Loya is the wife of School Board member Oscar De La Torre and both are board members of the PNA. AMPS is a Malibu based organization that wants Malibu to withdraw from the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District to create an independent school system.

“In our efforts to improve Malibu public schools, we have become keenly aware of how at-large elections prevent minority groups from having their voices heard. The intentionally discriminatory provision of the Santa Monica City Charter prevents not only the City, but also the Santa Monica-Malibu School District, from adopting district-based elections; we want the school board to be empowered to voluntarily adopt fair elections, and set an example for the students,” said Roui Israel, president of AMPS.     

Loya and de la Torre announced their intent to force the city to adopt district elections in December of last year. The pair worked with Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman to send a letter to the City Hall alleging the city’s current system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

The group said their suit follows four months of silence from City Hall on the topic.

“In the 14 years since the CVRA was enacted, it has brought fair elections to more than 200 cities, counties and school districts. In the case of Santa Monica, not only do the at-large elections violate the CVRA, they violate the California Constitution as well because they were adopted with the purpose of disenfranchising racial minorities,” Shenkman said.

Shenkman and his team have won CVRA cases against Highland and Palmdale. The group were also involved in changing the rules in other cities without taking cases to trial.

District elections were first discussed locally in 1992 when the City commissioned a report from J. Morgan Kousser, a historian and voting rights expert. At that time, Kousser recommended switching to district-based elections to avoid allegations of racial discrimination or potential lawsuits.

Councilman Kevin McKeown said he had not seen the suit and could not comment on it specifically. However, he said the general concept of district elections has been discussed and rejected by residents in the past.

“Divided representation in Santa Monica would mean a resident in a given neighborhood would have only one councilmember to go to, not seven,” he said. “By electing our councilmembers at-large, four at a time and then three at a time, Santa Monica enjoys a very workable form of proportional representation.”

McKeown said Santa Monica is a small city and councilmembers are able to interact with residents throughout the city to ensure they hear and represent everyone’s concerns.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich agreed.

“I do not believe that in a city this small, district elections are necessary,” she said.

Both Himmelrich and McKeown cited significant minority representation on all of Santa Monica’s elected bodies (Council, Rent Control Board, School Board and College Board) as evidence that the electorate does not discriminate based on race.

In recent history, current Mayor Tony Vazquez and former Mayor Nat Trives are the only non-white individuals to win a seat on City Council. Vazquez lives in the Sunset Park neighborhood. Councilman Terry O’Day, who is white, lives in the Pico neighborhood.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Santa Monica’s population is about 70 percent white, 4 percent African American, 9 percent Asian and 13 percent Hispanic or Latino.

Despite filing the suit in an election year, de la Torre said the plaintiffs expect the City to take immediate action in advance of this year’s vote.

“We have waited more than 70 years for fair elections and it’s not in the best interest of residents to continue to live under a rigged political system,” he said.

editor@smdp.com

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