The City of Santa Monica will be left without a City Council if it does not hold a special election this summer, according to a recent ruling in the ongoing fight over district-based elections.
Judge Yvette Palazuelos ruled Feb. 15 that the City of Santa Monica’s at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) because it suppresses the voting power of the Santa Monica’s Latino population. The ruling prohibits councilmembers who were elected in at-large elections from serving past Aug. 15 and orders the City to hold a special election on July 2 to elect councilmembers according to a seven-district map drawn by the plaintiffs in the case, Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association.
The City appealed the decision Feb. 22 and on Monday asked Palazuelos asked to clarify whether the prohibition on at-large councilmembers will be stayed until the appeal is resolved. Palazuelos issued a ruling Wednesday denying the request, reaffirming that all current councilmembers will have to step down by Aug. 15.
“We’re happy the court recognizes it’s important that minority voting rights should not be delayed,” said Kevin Shenkman, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The City argued in its request that Paragraph 9 of Palazuelos’ ruling, which prohibits the current Council from serving past Aug. 15, would force the City to hold a district-based election this summer or risk not having a City Council at all.
The City’s appeal stayed Palazuelos’ order that the City hold a special election because the order was mandatory. However, Palazuelos reaffirmed in her Wednesday ruling that the order prohibiting councilmembers from serving past Aug. 15 was prohibitory, which means it will not be stayed while the City appeals.
The City’s attorneys wrote in the request for a stay that the elections process would need to be initiated within the next few weeks to hold a July 2 special election.
“They can hold that election or a district-based election on a different date, but if they don’t hold any election to elect a Council prior to Aug. 15, the City would not have a quorum for its City Council,” Shenkman said.
The City’s attorneys maintain the special election and requirement that current councilmembers must step down by Aug. 15 have both been stayed automatically as a result of the appeal.
“The trial court declined the City’s request for confirmation,” said Theodore Boutrous, one of the City’s attorneys. “But given the importance of these issues, and the serious disruption of the electoral process that would follow if the City were somehow forced to hold an election this summer or eliminate its duly elected Council during the appeal, the City is considering all options to eliminate any uncertainty – including seeking relief from the Court of Appeal.”
The City will write an appeal brief in four to six months and it will be at least one year before oral arguments can be heard in court, the City’s attorneys said.