As the issue of whether or not Santa Monica should be divided into voting districts — where each neighborhood elects one official to represent them on council, rather than electing seven at-large candidates from across the city — awaits judgment before the California Supreme Court, Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who has close ties to advocates of by-district elections, has been granted the right to weigh in on how Santa Monica handles the case.

On July 18, de la Torre and the City of Santa Monica reached a settlement in a lawsuit de la Torre filed against the City back in 2021, after he was blocked from participating in City Council discussions of a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit that de la Torre’s wife, Maria Loya, filed against the City in an effort to force Santa Monica to enact district-area voting.

In addition to permitting de la Torre to once again take part in discussions and decisions regarding the case, as part of the settlement, the City agreed to pay $92,500 worth of attorney’s fees to de la Torre’s legal counsel, Will Trivino-Perez. 

On Thursday, July 21, the City of Santa Monica provided a “neutral statement” summarizing the settlement — the only statement either side is permitted to make about the case now that the settlement is complete.

The agreement “places the responsibility of each Councilmember to decide if that Councilmember has a conflict squarely with that Councilmember. The agreement also expressly limits each Councilmember’s ability to have any discussions about confidential information from closed sessions without the City Attorney present.”

The neutral statement specified that the settlement was not “an admission or concession,” but rather, “a reflection of all parties’ desire to put this matter to rest and prioritize use of public resources for things that directly benefit the community.”

The settlement agreement was signed by de la Torre and his attorney, Trivino-Perez, plus another plaintiff, Elias Serna; representing the City were Santa Monica City Manager David White, Mayor Sue Himmelrich, City Attorney Doug Sloan and City Clerk Denise Anderson-Warren.

The issue dates back to April 2016, when Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association — of which de la Torre is a former co-chair — filed their voting rights lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica.

The CVRA states, in part, that “An at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class …”

In the 20 years since it was signed into law, the CVRA has resulted in scores of California cities moving to district-based voting. Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who was one of a handful of attorneys who filed the original suit against the City of Santa Monica, has successfully represented dozens plaintiffs in such challenges, as recently as Wednesday, July 20, when Shenkman filed a suit against the City of Cypress in Orange County. 

With de la Torre, a proponent of district-based voting, cleared to participate in City negotiations about the new election model, the Councilmember may be able to rally the council support necessary to enact by-district voting and thus render the current court case moot. However, if the California Supreme Court rules before City Council has an opportunity to reopen discussion, de la Torre would have no opportunity to participate in debate or decision-making.