Public comment on the closed session agenda items in Tuesday’s City Council meeting was dominated by the Pico Neighborhood Association et al. v. City of Santa Monica voting rights case, which revolves around allegations that the city’s at-large voting system unfairly discriminates against Latino voters and violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
The plaintiffs, including the Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya, argue that adopting district-based voting would be a potential remedy. The legal proceedings began in 2016, with the first ruling emerging in 2018 from the Los Angeles Superior Court, favoring the plaintiffs and criticizing the at-large voting approach. However, a 2020 appeals court decision overturned this ruling, leading the plaintiffs to elevate the case to the California Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision and sent the case back for further review.
The final outcome of the case is anyone’s guess, but the recent action has prompted new debate over potentially settling the case and residents came to the city council meeting to voice their opinions.
Supporters of continuing the case said the Supreme Court specifically didn’t rule on the merits of the case, just that the appeals court made a mistake in its logic. They said if the City were to win, it would avoid paying legal fees to the plaintiffs and that the evidence didn’t support the necessary benchmarks set by the Supreme Court.
“The reality is the court rejected arguments made by both the city and the plaintiffs and remanded the case back to the appellate panel with a clarifying set of ground rules. The plaintiffs now have to prove the existence of both voter dilution and racially polarized voting, the city only has to prove one of those two are absent in our current voting system,” said former mayor Ted Winterer.
“And that decision will then be made by a panel of judges, which showed no love for the plaintiffs in their first hearing. So you should have every reason to be optimistic about prevailing with the appellate panel and therefore should not settle this lawsuit. Ask yourselves why are the plaintiffs so eager to set off unless they fear losing a court.”
Real estate attorney Tom Larmore agreed.
“The Supreme Court made very clear that the players are required to prove racially polarized voting. The facts show that they cannot prove that, the standard for that is to show that the team of preferred candidates usually lose, but the fact is, they don’t,” he said.
“Finally, under the California constitution, city council does not have the authority to switch over from at-large voting to a district system without a vote of the people. So the idea of trying to settle this case and lose a district based system on our city would be in violation of the California constitution.”
Some residents said they did support the law but said it didn’t apply here.
“I really support the CVRA, but I feel that Santa Monica is a different entity. So the last time that the city council had the opportunity to discuss the CVRA lawsuit was at the May 9 city council meeting prior to when arguments on the case were heard at the California Supreme Court,” Nicole Ferris, television producer said.
“Now the Supreme Court has issued its opinion, it is up to the council to decide what the city’s next steps are. I urge the city council to stay the course and allow the case to be reheard by the Court of Appeals … It is up to the Santa Monica City Council to ensure that the totality of the facts and circumstances of the city’s current at-large voting system are carefully examined by the Court of Appeal.”
Residents who argued the case should be settled said the city has already spent too much money fighting the case, that a City victory would undermine the CVRA’s voter protections across the entire state and that the current system was unfair.
“I couldn’t disagree more with Ted Winterer. I live in the Pico neighborhood and I’m a historian, I know how the Pico neighborhood has been marginalized for years from this at-large electoral system that we’ve had for decades,” said Brian O’Neil, history professor.
“This is about voting rights … I know for a fact that the residents of the Pico neighborhood have been marginalized because of this system. For generations, even recently, it’s been made clear that we didn’t have direct representation on this council. This is not democracy, this is not what the Voting Rights Act is supposed to protect. We need some sort of reform system, the at-large system does not work.”
Richard Polanco, the former state senator who wrote the CVRA came to the meeting to defend the law.
“Over 125 cities, over 200 school districts [in California] have profoundly increased the representation of minority Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, elected to local offices. I have watched with bewilderment as the City of Santa Monica has paid millions of dollars to a Republican law firm to attack the California Voting Rights Act and the voting rights of minorities, not just in your city, but throughout the state of California. The implications go beyond the city,” he said.
“The Supreme Court of California ruled very clearly that the California Voting Rights Act was in fact constitutional. We see at the federal level the US Supreme Court, we see Republican states continuing to whittle away, to disenfranchise, ethnic minority communities that are protected by the Constitution. The continuation of this litigation jeopardizes the California Voting Rights Act.”
Plaintiff Maria Loya said the neighborhood has lacked representation for decades.
“I have been in Santa Monica for close to 25 years and I’ve experienced the marginalization that the lack of political representation has done to the Pico neighborhood,” she said. “In fact, for 75 years the Pico neighborhood has gone without representation in city government which has led to the marginalization of the residents and it has created the Pico neighborhood as a dumping ground.”
Council discussed the case in closed session but there was no action taken and no trial date has been set to re-hear the case.