File photo

With the trial over the legality of Santa Monica’s election system looking to stretch into September, two challengers have already dropped out of the 2018 City Council race citing uncertainty.  Residocracy founders Armen Melkonians and Kate Bransfield announced over the weekend they decided not to run after pulling papers.

“We are hopeful that justice will be served through the CVRA lawsuit, that district elections will be our future, and that we will rise to fight another day,” Melkonians wrote in a Facebook post.

The future of City Council races rests in the hands of Judge Yvette Palazuelos, as attorneys for the City and the Pico Neighborhood Association wage war in Los Angeles Superior Court. The lawsuit is based on the 2001 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), which allows minorities to sue for district-based elections if they can show racially polarized voting.

Three years after the plaintiffs’ attorneys won a CVRA lawsuit in Palmdale, Malibu lawyer Kevin Shenkman says 40 cities have changed their City Council structure rather than fight him in court. In the Palmdale case, the city paid Shenkman’s $4.6 million legal fees and created four districts, two of which have a narrow Latino majority. The judge in that case refused to certify the results of an election held during the litigation.

Santa Monica is one of the few cities to fight back; arguing Latino voters would actually lose voting power in a districting system. While Latinos could comprise roughly 30 percent of a hypothetical Pico neighborhood district, the majority of Latinos in Santa Monica would live outside its boundaries. Councilmember Tony Vazquez, a Latino-preferred candidate, does not live in the Pico neighborhood. Latinos make up 13.6 percent of the citywide voting population here.

The trial in Palmdale lasted eight days. With nearly sixty witnesses who could be ordered to testify, Santa Monica’s trial could go on for weeks.

The City Clerk’s office has told the Daily Press it would be difficult to make last minute changes to the November ballot because Santa Monica elections are consolidated with Los Angeles.  Nonetheless, Palazuelos could place an injunction or delay the election until a new system can be administered.

Nonetheless, candidates who wish to run for Council have until Aug. 10 to gather 100 signatures from supporters to qualify for the November ballot.  Then candidates must begin raising money to compete in a very expensive race – incumbents in 2016 raised an average of $96,000, according to The Santa Monica Transparency Project.

“We are loathe to ask the thousands of Residocracy supporters to devote the time and energy that the campaign would have taken, when that effort could have been in vain,” Bransfield told the Daily Press.

Meanwhile, other candidates are staying in the race. Perennial challenger and Green Party member Jon Mann called the trial excuse a “cop-out.”

“They’re probably dropping out because they realize they can’t win without endorsements from City Employee Associations and SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters Rights),” Mann said. “I run my campaign knowing incumbents almost always win, but fighting the corrupt system is the only way to change it.”

Last week, the influential group SMRR endorsed incumbents Kevin McKeown and Sue Himmelrich and challenger Greg Morena. Incumbent Pam O’Connor did not seek SMRR’s endorsement, after winning re-election without it in 2014.

Five-time incumbent Councilmember McKeown said responding to unexpected shake-ups is part of the job.

“Anyone aspiring to elected office knows that campaigns are subject to any number of unpredictable turning points, from economic implosions to natural disasters,” McKeown said.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press