Candidates line up for Santa Monica City Council race amid uncertainty of Voting Rights Act lawsuit

By Gary Walker

Santa Monica natives Ashley Powell and Greg Morena are among 17 who’ve pulled papers to run for Santa Monica City Council in November

As Santa Monica battles a Voting Rights Act lawsuit that aims to change the way it elects city council members, November’s at-large election for three council seats is suffering no shortage of potential candidates. As of Tuesday, 17 people had pulled papers ahead of Friday’s filing deadline, including the three incumbents.

At least two potential challengers say they are stepping out of the race, however, citing potential ramifications of the trial currently playing out in downtown
Los Angeles.

The Pico Neighborhood Association’s lawsuit claims that the city’s at-large election system disenfranchises Latino residents (13% of the city’s population) by diluting their votes across citywide races. They’re asking the city to conduct council elections by geographic districts, arguing district races would give Pico residents a stronger chance to elect candi-
dates that better represent their interests.

The lawsuit is not unique, but Santa Monica’s decision to fight it is. Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who filed the Santa Monica complaint, has filed similar lawsuits in dozens of other local jurisdictions throughout California. In 2012 Shenkman prevailed in a similar lawsuit against the city of Palmdale, earning a payout of over $4 million in legal fees, and since that time cities including South Pasadena, Arcadia, West Covina, Lancaster and most recently Torrance have voluntarily switched to district elections under threats of legal action.

Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer and Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis wrote in a July op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that there is little data to suggest district elections would enhance Latino representation and argue that legislation via lawsuit contradicts the will of the voters. Santa Monica voters rejected switching from at-large to district elections in 1994 and 2002.

UCLA Professor of Political Science and Chicano studies Matt Barreto isn’t sure if the lawsuit will have any effect on the outcome of the upcoming election, but he noted if the city settles with the plaintiffs they will have the opportunity to shape the new voting districts.

“In order to win their case, the Santa Monica plaintiffs will have to do their homework, have correct election data and show that the historical environment has been discriminatory,” Barreto said.

On Monday, civil engineer Armen Melkonians and realtor Kate Bransfield announced on Facebook that they were dropping out of the race because of the pending lawsuit (neither returned calls). Both were leaders of the 2016 Residocracy movement, which aimed to limit Santa Monica development via failed ballot initiative Measure LV, and they believe waiting for the results of the lawsuit is in the best interests of their supporters and themselves.

“The judge’s decision on the lawsuit is sure to come out in the next several months. On the strong likelihood that the lawsuit will win and the November election will be cancelled, we cannot in good conscience ask for the tremendous level of support and hard work from our Residocracy volunteers that will be required and may be in vain,” Melkonians wrote.

It isn’t clear that November elections would be cancelled if the city loses. The city has publicly opposed delaying elections if they do, and could very likely appeal to a higher court.

Mary Marlow, who heads the local government watchdog group Santa Monica Transparency Project, has pulled papers to run but remains coy about whether she’ll actually file them. She’s concurrently leading a November ballot initiative campaign asking voters to enact council term limits.

Marlow said she decided to pull papers back in July because, other than council incumbents Kevin McKeown (who opposes term limits) and Sue Himmerlich (who supports them), “I didn’t see anyone who wanted to look out for regular people. If we were in the movie industry, we’d be background, local color. We’re just not a priority.”

Two Santa Monica natives joining the fray would beg to differ.

Ashley Powell, who intends to run but has yet to qualify for the ballot, is an events planner who has been active with social justice charities and nonprofits. Her platform includes more affordable housing, historic preservation and a continued focus on homelessness.

“I decided to run because I know that my experience in social services will make me a great asset to the City Council. I feel as a [non-practicing] social worker that I have a unique perspective that I can bring to the council. Social services can be increased, and I’d like to make Santa Monica more accessible for our residents with disabilities,” she said.

Greg Morena, who last Thursday became the first challenger to qualify for the ballot, grew up in the Pico neighborhood, attended Santa Monica High School and his family owns The Albright restaurant on Santa Monica Pier. He’s a member of the city’s audit commission and the Pier Lessees Association.

“I am from Santa Monica and I am for Santa Monica. I believe that I have a fresh perspective that is shared by the community at large. I think we’re a great city, but we can do better,” he said.

Morena said that losing his best friend to a drive-by shooting in the Pico neighborhood when he was 14 has shaped his support for law enforcement as well as community intervention programs such as the Santa Monica Police Activities League, which provides recreational and educational activities for local youth.

Regarding the elections lawsuit, Morena thinks settling the issue by a charter amendment supported by the electorate would be a better way to go.

“Making electoral changes based on lawsuits instead of the will of voters diminishes rather than enhances voting rights,” he said.