It looks like by 2022 both the school district and city will have gone to district elections. While Matt Rexroad told the Vanguard that the city should change in time for March 2020, the city responded that the deadline for that has been missed.
Officially the city has not made a decision. It is simply facing “a formal legal threat that it shifts to a ‘district-based’ election system for City Council races after receiving a letter from an attorney warning that it could face millions of dollars in legal costs if it does not comply.”
The city council has not made a decision regarding whether to shift to a “district-based” system, commonly referred to as district elections, but will consider in upcoming meetings how to respond to the demand letter. Currently, all five city council members are elected “at-large” by the entire city electorate and do not represent districts.
However, privately, several told the Vanguard that no jurisdiction has prevailed in litigation, the cost is high to challenge and therefore, just as the school district, fighting for it is probably a huge expenditure of resources that will strip the city of further local control.
Matt Rexroad, a former mayor of Woodland and more recently a county supervisor, is an attorney representing a client in this matter.
He told the Vanguard, “My clients know that the City of Davis has a deep commitment to civil rights. They can demonstrate that commitment, just like the Davis School District did, by moving to district-based elections in time for the 2020 election, in order to comply with the California Voting Rights Act.”
However, the city in its release claims, “Due to statutory and County elections deadlines, any transition to district-based elections would not impact the March 3, 2020 election, but could take effect in March 2022.”
In his letter, he pointed out that the city of Davis utilizes an at-large election system for electing candidates to the city council.
Moreover, he argues, “Voting within Davis is racially-polarized. which has resulted in minority vote dilution. Davis’ minority voters have not had proper representation on the city council because of the at-large election system.”
Meanwhile, courts, following the passage of the California Voting Rights Act “have regularly found that at-large election systems violate voting rights laws.” The law makes it difficult for jurisdictions to prevail, when “the CVRA requires only that a plaintiff show the existence of racially polarized voting to establish a violation”
Mr. Rexroad argues, “A city’s at·large method of election is in conflict with the CVRA when it impairs the ability of a protected class to influence the outcome of an election because of vote dilution of members of a protected class.”
He writes that “the election history in Davis demonstrates the insidious effects of racially polarized voting and vote dilution.” Here he notes that Gloria Partida is the only elected Latina while Brett Lee has been the only Asian member of the council since 2010.
The letter by Mr. Rexroad demands that the city act by August 15, 2019, to “take certain actions that demonstrate Davis’ intention and specific plan to transition to district-based elections. If we do not receive a response by that date,” Rexroad’s letter further states, “we will be forced to seek judicial relief on behalf of the residents of Davis.” The letter does not identify who the specific plaintiffs are nor does it identify the actions that must be taken to fulfill the demand.
As noted, the council has not met to make a decision on whether to challenge the suit or shift to a district-based system.
Currently, all five city council members are elected “at-large” by the entire city electorate and do not represent districts. In a “district-based” election system, the city would be physically divided into separate districts, and a candidate would have to live in the district he or she intends to represent and be elected only by the voters residing within that election district.
According to the press release, the letter, dated July 1 was received by the city and its legal council immediately reviewed the demand letter and mapped out the next steps for the city.
The city has 45 days under state law to respond to the letter and “to decide whether to adopt a resolution declaring its intention to transition to district-based elections.”
State law provides an additional 90-day period for a city to hold a series of public hearings and adopt an ordinance implementing such a change in its election process.
If a city does so within 90 days, it is required to pay up to $30,000 in legal fees to the plaintiff making the demand for district-based elections, but does not incur any additional liability, which according to the city release, “has amounted to millions of dollars from litigation in other jurisdictions.”
The Davis City Council has scheduled a special city council meeting on Tuesday, August 13, 2019, to consider this matter. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall in the Community Chambers, located at 23 Russell Boulevard in Davis.
City Manager Mike Webb states, “Irrespective of one’s views on the merits of a district-based system, the statute requires prompt action by the City. The timing is challenging, as it is a weighty and complex policy matter that falls during the summer break in a university community when many are out of town. However, the City must take up consideration of this to comply with the process set forth in State law pursuant to such demand letters, and to avoid incurring potentially significant legal fees.”
The city manager added: “Ensuring adequate time to gather community input and allowing the City to incorporate updated population statistics from the 2020 US Census would be beneficial to any consideration of a district-based system. Understandably, there will be strong community interest in this topic, and we will work diligently to keep the community apprised of the process, next steps, and opportunities for input.”
A few cities have attempted to defend against one of these suits – but according to the city and other sources, “none have prevailed under the CVRA.”
They add that “the law also requires the city to pay a plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs if the plaintiff prevails. Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs in CVRA cases often amount to millions of dollars.”
The Davis City Council is required to conduct a minimum of five public hearings to determine the number and composition of the districts. The Davis community would have an opportunity to provide input and opinions “regarding the composition of the districts during the first two public hearings.”
Following the meetings, “district maps would be drafted, and two additional public hearings held for the public to provide input on the draft maps and proposed sequence of elections.”
At the final public hearing, the city council would vote to consider an ordinance establishing district-based elections.
—David M. Greenwald reporting