Activists threatening legal action are urging the City of Santa Monica to discard its current at-large voting system in favor of district-based elections.
Pico neighborhood organizer Oscar de la Torre and his wife, Maria Loya, led a small rally Tuesday morning on the steps of City Hall in an effort to change how Santa Monica residents are represented in city government.
The gathering was held after attorney Kevin Shenkman sent an email to all seven City Council members and City Manager Rick Cole alleging that the city’s current election system violates the California Voting Rights Act. Shenkman’s email requests a response from the City by Jan. 11, 2016.
A lawsuit has not yet been filed, but Loya is prepared to move forward as a plaintiff if the City does not address her concerns.
Multiple attempts to reach a City spokeswoman were not successful Tuesday afternoon.
Loya’s call for reform reflects ongoing frustration among residents of the Pico neighborhood, which has a high concentration of Latino families, about racial discrimination and political disenfranchisement. The only current councilman who lives in the Pico neighborhood, Terry O’Day, is white.
The new mayor, Tony Vazquez, is one of few minority council members in Santa Monica’s history.
“The current electoral system marginalizes minority voters,” said Loya, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for a council seat in 2004 and lost a bid for College Board in 2014. “The current at-large system has led to uneven representation for large groups of voters. District elections in Santa Monica will give elected officials the incentive to distribute resources equitably and enable them to respond quickly and efficiently to their constituents.”
In a statement released prior to the press conference, she said she won in neighborhood precincts but lost the elections citywide.
The fight for district-based voting in Santa Monica follows a series of cases throughout Southern California in which Shenkman, who is based in Malibu, has challenged cities’ at-large elections.
Shenkman said Palmdale “fought us tooth-and-nail” and ended up having to change its voting system while spending approximately $7 million in legal fees. He said he found significantly less resistance in Garden Grove and Buena Park.
“We hope that the City of Santa Monica takes the right approach,” he said. “We hope that the City of Santa Monica is not just a liberal facade, that they take the ideology of representative democracy seriously and adopt district-based elections without the need for a lawsuit. If we need a lawsuit, we will file it. We are hopeful that they will take their responsibilities as elected officials seriously.”
Loya and her supporters cited a report by historian and voting rights expert J. Morgan Kousser, who in 1992 was asked by the City Attorney’s office to examine the at-large election system that Santa Monica adopted in 1946.
“If Santa Monica wishes to avoid the embarassment [sic] of defending itself against a serious charge of racial discrimination, and if it prefers spending scarce resources on things other than high-priced lawyers,” Kousser’s report reads, “it should replace the at-large system with election by districts.”
It remains unclear whether a district voting system, if adopted locally, would be in place for the 2016 elections or how it would impact campaign spending in the future.
Activists said their fight could eventually have implications for the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education, of which de la Torre is currently a member. The Pico Youth and Family Center director, whose term on the school board expires in December 2018, said he does not plan to run for City Council. But he said he believes district-based voting would benefit other areas of the city, not just the Pico neighborhood.
“We feel that district elections provide more inclusivity and more fairness,” he said. “We want our government to be a mirror image of the people.”