Voting Rights Act judgment could force the entire Santa Monica City Council to face re-election in July

By Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker

Santa Monica would elect city leaders from seven voter districts

The Santa Monica City Council will hold a closed-session meeting on Feb. 21 about whether to appeal a recent court ruling that would put all seven councilmembers up for re-election this summer — this time according to new geographic voter districts that would pit three incumbents against each other for one seat.

The Pico Neighborhood Association and its treasurer Maria Loya, a past council candidate, challenged the city’s at-large election system as violating the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power and representation of Latinos in city government, particularly Latinos in the Pico Neighborhood.

The city countered that elections by district — rejected by voters in 1975 and 2002 — would dilute the electoral impact of Latinos who don’t live in the Pico Neighborhood, putting two-thirds of Latino residents outside of a Pico district that itself would not be majority Latino.

“With districts, six of the seven councilmembers would have no reason to consider you as their constituents,” Kevin McKeown, the council’s longest serving member, and Ana Jara, recently appointed to fill a council vacancy, wrote in a letter to the Santa Monica Daily Press.

But on Feb. 15, following preliminary findings against the city, a California Superior Court judge ruled against the city’s at-large system and ordered a July 2 special election for all council seats utilizing geographic boundaries proposed by the plaintiffs. The order cites “a consistent pattern of racially polarized voting” in Santa Monica for the past 24 years, with Latino voters historically showing a strong preference for Latino candidates but only one Latino winning election to the council in all of that time.

The new voting districts place Mayor Gleam Davis and newly re-elected council allies McKeown and Sue Himmelrich into the same North of Montana district, with McKeown (the only renter on the council) included by extending the affluent district south of Montana Avenue, according to the Santa Monica Lookout.

“This lawsuit actually dilutes the public’s voting power by carving up existing neighborhoods that might have very similar issues that previously elected representatives have been working on for years,” said Davis. “I want to have a full discussion with our city attorney to see what our options are. My personal belief is an appeal is something that we need
to consider.”

Councilmember Terry O’Day lives in what would be the Pico District, and
no elected council incumbents live in
any of three Downtown, Mid-City and Northeast districts.

“Any conjecture regarding districts or candidates is premature,” O’Day said, “but I have faith in our voters, who consistently choose candidates who work in the public interest. The self-interested charlatans who brought this case would not likely fair well with our voters.”