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Swinging on any given day from the drama of political theater to the banalities of a Cal-Tech statistics classroom, the voting rights trial to determine the future of Santa Monica elections began its second month Tuesday, with Councilmember and 20-year Pico Neighborhood resident Terry O’Day taking the stand.

O’Day testified to improvements made in his neighborhood over the past few decades, including street improvements, the revitalization of Virginia Avenue Park and the construction of a Pico library branch.

O’Day said the hours he’s spent knocking on doors during four campaigns for Council informed his opinions on controversial issues.

“When people open up the door, you get to see a snippet of their life,” O’Day told Judge Yvette Palazuelos. “You have to talk to a lot of folks and collect a lot of checks to get your campaign off the ground.”

With O’Day on the stand, plaintiffs Maria Loya and her husband, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School Board member Oscar de la Torre, sat in the audience. Loya sued the city in 2015 using the California Voting Rights Act, a state law that makes it easier for minorities to overhaul local election systems if they can show minorities vote differently than their white neighbors. Dozens of cities have drawn voting districts rather than go to trial after receiving lawsuit threats brought by the same team of attorneys.

The judge will determine whether the city’s at-large election system discriminates against minority voters but it is not clear how her ruling will impact the upcoming election in November.

The plaintiffs paint O’Day and de la Torre as political rivals living in the same neighborhood. Experts for Loya said majority-Latino precincts voted for de la Torre for City Council in 2016 rather than O’Day, who won the seat with support from wealthy, white voters from other neighborhoods.

Their legal team has created a hypothetical Pico neighborhood district that would be roughly 34 percent Latino. The City maintains that most Latino residents would live outside that proposed district, arguing the lawsuit is self-defeating since it doesn’t advance their interests. While he is not Latino, 63 percent of Latino voters selected O’Day in 2012 and 55 percent in 2016.

“Plaintiff’s own expert David Ely’s analysis of the 2016 election shows that – in the district system he himself proposed – O’Day would defeat district proponent Oscar de la Torre in two out of three scenarios,” said City spokesperson Debbie Lee.

While O’Day lives about a dozen blocks from de la Torre, he said he no longer attends Pico Neighborhood Association meetings, citing “polarizing rhetoric” and “bombastic language” from Loya and de la Torre. In the current at-large election system, O’Day represents the entire city, rather than only his own neighborhood.

At one point, Loya’s lawyer, Rex Parris, asked O’Day whether he thought de la Torre is a nutjob.

“You want me to answer if he’s a nutjob?” O’Day asked.

“I know he’s not a nutjob … I want to know if you think he’s a nutjob,” Parris said.

“I think Oscar engages in arguments for the sake of arguments sometimes,” O’Day said.

Parris handed O’Day a large, blue Sharpie marker to list various environmental hazards in the Pico Neighborhood, including the city’s maintenance yard, Interstate 10, a solid waste transfer facility, a hazardous waste facility, the Olympic water treatment facility and a Santa Monica Fire Department training center. Parris suggested O’Day’s lack of action to relocate or mitigate the effects of those facilities in his own neighborhood was hypocritical, given his stated commitment to environmental justice.

“The City Yard is about 12 to 14 blocks from my house,” O’Day said. “The freeway is 150 feet.”

Even with those facilities, O’Day said he believes the Pico Neighborhood is a great place to raise his family.

“I see a community that has values that I share,” O’Day said.

O’Day said city staff and various levels of local, state and Federal agencies protect residents from the potentially hazardous effects of those facilities. He said the upcoming $115 million makeover of City Yards would likely reduce the impacts of the maintenance yard on the surrounding community.

In 2016, O’Day was found to have violated the Oaks Initiative, a local anti-corruption statute, when he accepted $340 campaign contributions from developers Marc Luzatto, a principal of Village Trailer Park, and Dan Emmett, the Chairman of Douglas Emmett. O’Day said it was a clerical oversight, returned the money and paid a $500 penalty to the City’s General Fund.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press

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