Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)



A lawsuit challenging the way voters choose their Councilmembers in Santa Monica will continue, despite a City effort to have the suit thrown out of court.

Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge overruled the City Attorney’s objections that the suit based on the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) is invalid. The Pico Neighborhood Association brought the lawsuit against the City in 2016 in an effort to force Santa Monica to change to district-based elections.

In the ruling, Judge Yvette Palazuelos wrote that the Pico Neighborhood Association, including co-chair Oscar de la Torre and his wife Maria Loya, sufficiently demonstrated a violation of the CVRA for the case to continue. The Act outlaws at-large elections that impair the ability of a protected class to elect candidates or influence an election.

The lawsuit alleges racially polarized voting occurred in four instances over the past seventy years: when Tony Vazquez lost in 1994, Josefina Aranda in 2002, Maria Loya in 2004, and Oscar de la Torre in 2016. In 70 years, Santa Monica has had only two Latino Councilmembers: Gleam Davis and Tony Vazquez. About 15 percent of Santa Monicans identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest census data.

“We’ve shown that when the current at-large election system was implemented in 1946, it was done intentionally to keep minority voters from electing their candidates,” said Kevin Shenkman, the Malibu attorney who has brought the case in Santa Monica after winning a slew of others in cities across Southern California. Many of those cities capitulated immediately – some changing their election systems before Shenkman even filed a formal complaint – after receiving a warning he coming to town.

Shenkman told the Daily Press he anticipates the Santa Monica case will be his third to go to trial over at-large elections. He has yet to lose a case.

“The reason that it is disturbing to me that Santa Monica has said ‘we will fight to the death’ is, one, it’s a waste of resources that could be spent elsewhere,” Shenkman said. “Secondly, politically, this is not in line with Santa Monica’s progressive image.”

Shenkman pointed to a May article that appeared on the right-wing website Breitbart that called him a “a do-gooder from Malibu who is creating racial divisions where they do not exist – and making millions in the process.” The father of four called the story a hit piece.

“It’s bizarre that Santa Monica is finding common cause with Brietbart and somehow there’s this disconnect,” Shenkman said. “These folks think this law applies to everyone except Santa Monica. As if they are so special…as if problems stop at Centinela Avenue.”

Judge Palazuelos wrote that the fact that Latinos in Santa Monica may not be concentrated in a certain neighborhood or divisible “district” does not necessarily mean the claim would ultimately fail. It may, however, affect they way Santa Monica elections look if Shenkman wins again.

The City Attorney’s office did not respond to the Daily Press’ request for comment.