City Council voted unanimously at a special meeting Thursday night to appeal a ruling that ordered it to hold district elections to remedy a history of racially polarized voting.
Council heard public comment on the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit before voting to appeal Judge Yvette Palazuelos’ decision, which ordered the City of Santa Monica to hold an election on July 2 to replace the current Council. Palazuelos’ decision found that the City’s at-large election system suppressed the voting power of Santa Monica’s Latino population and ordered the City to elect councilmembers in seven districts using a map drawn by the plaintiffs, Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association.
Mayor Gleam Davis reiterated the City’s argument that it would undermine the democratic process to hold elections based on a map drawn without public input.
“What’s important for the public to understand is that at-large elections do a very good job of reflecting the will of the community,” said Mayor Gleam Davis. “What the plaintiffs are trying to do here in a very non-democratic way is impose district elections where the public has had no input into how the districts were made, where there’s really been no showing that the districts would change the outcome of City elections.”
The City will file a notice of appeal Friday and ask for a stay on the remedies Palazuelos ordered. Theodore Boutrous, one of the City’s attorneys, said the City will be able to write an appeal brief in four to six months and it will be at least one year before attorneys can make oral arguments in court.
Boutrous said he believes the law mandates a stay on holding an election because it would go against the will of voters who voted for Council candidates last November.
The legal fees associated with an appeal would be much less than the amount the City will have to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys if it accepts the ruling because the City’s attorneys would only have to prepare an appeal brief and make a short oral argument, he added.
City Attorney Lane Dilg said before Council voted to appeal that Palazuelos’ decision left several legal issues unresolved, including that adopting an election map drawn by the plaintiffs violates state elections code requiring that cities hold a public input process before drawing election districts. The City also disputes that Latinos have been underrepresented on City Council.
It is impossible to draw a district in Santa Monica with a Latino population of more than 30 percent and no court adjudicating a voting rights case has ever ordered the creation of a district where the minority group in question would be that low, Dilg added. She recommended appealing the decision so California’s appellate courts could address those issues.
Kevin Shenkman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he thinks Council did not listen to community opinion by deciding to appeal and had opportunities to create a district map with public input before and during the case. He added he believes it is highly unlikely that an appellate court will overturn Palazuelos’ ruling that the City violated the CVRA.
About 15 people made public comment before Council voted, including Loya and Shenkman. Most asked Council not to appeal the final ruling because they believe Palazuelos made the right decision in the case and feel the City has little chance of winning an appeal.
“In the end, after consideration of the experts and the evidence, the City lost. Prevailing on an appeal would be harder than it was to prevail in the lawsuit,” said resident and attorney Maryanne LaGuardia. “This would be a good time to stop the case, and to stop vilifying those who brought it.”
Davis said she does not think the consensus among members of the public who spoke at the meeting reflects the views of the entire Santa Monica community.
“I think a majority of people in Santa Monica understand this is a legal process and it will work itself out,” she said. “There’s clearly a group of people who feel very strongly about this who have circled around the plaintiffs. I’m not sure I see there being huge rifts among the community at large.”
This article was updated Feb. 22 at 9:33 a.m.