The City of Santa Monica has been ordered to discontinue at-large elections and adopt a district based system but the judge only mandated the borders for one district, leaving the remaining details unclear.

Judge Yvette Palazuelos issued a tentative ruling, siding with the Plaintiffs Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association that the City’s at-large voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Her tentative ruling was just a few sentences and did not elaborate on possible solutions to the CVRA violations.

Both sides were in court earlier this month to present more information regarding proposed solutions and Palazuelos issued an amended ruling on Dec. 12.

“The Court enjoins and restrains Defendant from imposing, applying, holding, tabulating, and/or certifying any at — large elections, and/or the results thereof, for any positions on its City Council,” said her ruling. “The Court commands and orders that from the date of entry of this judgment, Defendant’s elections for, and any seats on, the City Council shall be district-based elections, as defined by the California Voting Rights Act, and in accordance with the map attached hereto.”

The map provided outlines borders for a Pico neighborhood district but no others. While the ruling prevents the City from holding any additional at-large elections it doesn’t mandate any special elections to replace the current council.

A map submitted by the Plaintiffs had drawn a total of seven districts.

City Hall had argued that any district maps should be the result of public input. The map provided by the court outlines a Pico district similar to the one proposed by the Plaintiffs but makes no mention of other districts either in quantity or in size.

“We are pleased that the first amended tentative decision appears to reject the plaintiffs’ request to replace the City’s at-large election system – adopted by the voters in 1946 and twice affirmed by the voters at the polls – with a seven-district map drawn by the plaintiffs’ hired expert without opportunity for public input,” said City Attorney Lane Dilg in a statement.

She said the city continues to believe at-large elections are fair and disputed the assertion that Latino-preferred candidates have not won in the city.

The City has previously said it will appeal any ruling the favors the Plaintiff but a decision on any appeal won’t be made until a final ruling is issued. The most recent document is an amendment to the tentative ruling and is not yet final.

“We look forward to reviewing the statement of decision to be issued by the court, and we are pleased that the court appears to have affirmed that any district-based system imposed in Santa Monica will be drawn with a Pico Neighborhood district as set forth by the court but with public hearings and a full opportunity for community input with respect to other districts,” said Dilg.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman represented the Plaintiffs in the case and said the order issued by the court needs further clarification before any conclusions can be drawn regarding specific districts. However, he said the judge’s order was clear on several points: the City lost the case, at large elections violate the CVRA and no City Council election can be held without first establishing districts.

“The court tasked us plaintiffs with preparing the statement of decision for the Court’s review comment and revision if appropriate, and I’m not entirely sure what we should put in that statement of decision to accurately reflect what the court is saying here and intents,” he said. “So I think we may need to get clarification from the court in order to faithfully put together that statement of decision.”

He said it’s not clear how a future council election would be organized based on this week’s judgment but the language in the ruling indicates only district-based elections can be used for the Council races, eliminating the possibility of a hybrid system.

Both sides said the final ruling will hopefully clarify some of the ongoing questions.

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...

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