Voters cast their ballots at City Hall during an election. (File photo)

Democracy on TrialFamous civil rights attorney Milton Grimes painted a bleak picture of the Pico Neighborhood on the first day of the trial to determine the legality of Santa Monica’s election system. Grimes, who famously represented Rodney King, is one of three attorneys representing the plaintiffs Pico Neighborhood Association, Maria Loya and her husband, SMMUSD School Board Member Oscar de la Torre, in a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

“When you think of Santa Monica, you think of the beach, of the palm trees, almost like a utopia. Everyone looks at Santa Monica as the place to go,” Grimes said during opening statements Wednesday. “But there’s another part of Santa Monica, your honor.”

Peppered with blight, liquor stores and auto shops, Grimes said the stretch of the city bordered by Pico Boulevard to the south and Santa Monica Boulevard to the north has become a dumping ground for city services like City Yards and the landfill that later became Gandara Park.

“A park is supposed to be for enjoyment and gathering and play,” Grimes said. “This park gives us methane.”

The trial got off to a caustic start Wednesday, as attorneys for the City and the Pico Neighborhood Association squabbled over procedure. Attorneys are looking for every angle to influence Judge Yvette Palazuelos, who will have the ultimate say in whether Santa Monica has to change to district elections.

The case involves the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, which bans at-large election systems if they hurt the ability of minorities to influence the outcome.  The judge will review analysis of past elections to determine whether Latino voters prefer different candidates than the ones who end up getting elected city-wide.

In suing the city to change elections for City Council, Grimes and his co-council say the current at-large system was instituted in 1947 expressly to dilute minority votes and keep them from getting elected. They say the intention has largely been fulfilled. Current Councilmember Tony Vazquez is the only Latino-surnamed representative to serve on the City Council.

Vazquez, however, does not reside in the Pico Neighborhood.

“Latinos are dispersed throughout the city,” said attorney Marcellus McRae during his opening statements. “Two-thirds of Latinos in Santa Monica do not live in the Pico Neighborhood.”

McRae is a partner at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, LLP, the firm contracted by the City to assist with the case.  He argues that a district system would not give Latinos better representation on the City Council.

The issue has been on the ballot in Santa Monica twice, with voters rejecting districts in 1975 and 2002.   In 1992, the City Council voted 4-3 to maintain the status-quo rather than implement districts.  Loya and the PNA brought the lawsuit against Santa Monica after a similar lawsuit forced the city of Palmdale to change its election system to districts in 2015.

The case involves reviewing decades of City Council races and analyzing surnames and neighborhoods to determine whether Latinos in the Pico Neighborhood vote differently than their white neighbors.

The City ended opening statements with their own depiction of the Pico Neighborhood, highlighting Virginia Avenue Park, an $11 million project that opened in the Pico Neighborhood in 2014. Since 2001, McRae says the city has pent nearly $100 million on projects to improve that part of the city.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press