The city council on Tuesday made it clear that they did not like the tactics of former Supervisor Matt Rexroad, but they also made it clear that they had no choice, given the state of the law in California.
The council voted unanimously to approve a Resolution of Intent to Transition from At-Large to District-Based City Council Elections with the tentative schedule that has been laid out. They also authorized City Manager Mike Webb to enter into a contract with a demographer to assist in the drawing of boundaries.
In a separate motion, they voted to have the city attorney prepare an ordinance that would change the elections from March (or June) to November, starting in November 2020. That vote was not binding – meaning that the city could change course, but that seems unlikely.
City Attorney Inder Khalasa, responding to a question from Councilmember Dan Carson, made it clear that the city would risk serious financial consequences should they challenge Mr. Rexroad on this.
“The decision to transition to district elections and then hold the election at-large in 2020 – Mr. Rexroad has indicated he would challenge that and bring a lawsuit against the city,” she said.
In his July 25 letter to the city (published here), Mr. Rexroad wrote: “We hereby reiterate our demand that Davis change its election system to a district-based election system in time for the 2020 elections.” He added, “Our clients, and the protected classes they represent, should not have to suffer harm from another election under an unlawful system.”
He further charged, “Because the ability to bring Davis into compliance with state law is so feasible, we believe that any other decision by the city council would demonstrate a callous indifference to the CVRA and the critical interests that it is meant to protect.”
Reacting to the council decision, Matt Rexroad told the Vanguard, “Tonight the Davis City Council unanimously voted to follow state law. They also indicated a desire to have more participation in their municipal elections. That is good for democracy and good for Davis.”
However, the council clearly resented being forced to take this approach – though a number of councilmembers felt it was the right thing to do regardless.
Gloria Partida, reading from prepared remarks said, “I’m not a fan of people with hidden agendas using hard-won paths to level real inequity to further those agendas.”
She said, “It may be that political representation is a legitimate concern for our city and that people have been hurt by our current process. But the current process being unwinnable and costly as it is, robs our community of exploring and rectifying this problem in a deliberate and thoughtful way.”
Mayor Pro Tem Partida argued that this system would not benefit racial and ethnic minorities and, while there are precincts with heavier concentrations of Latinx voters, going to district elections, she argued, “They will still be diluted and in fact, they will now not have the ability to gain critical mass behind a candidate of their choice.”
Will Arnold said that he is in favor district elections and the voting rights act, but he argued, “I never really saw Davis as the poster child for the need for this.”
He said that, however, Davis meets the criteria under the law, and he has nothing before him that refutes that.
Councilmember Arnold added after a lengthy explanation, “I am somewhat begrudgingly in favor of moving toward an election in November 2020.” He pointed out, “That is maximum voter participation. I think that’s a good thing for democracy.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs said, “I do support the move to district elections.” He added, “We don’t really have an option of waiting until after the updated 2020 census numbers. That’s disgraceful frankly. We’re going to go through this whole process, a rushed process… we don’t have enough time to really do it… We’re going to have to do it twice over a short period of time.”
He said, “We don’t really have a choice as to whether it’s going to be 2020 and frankly it’s got to be November 2020.”
He later said, “This whole process is frustrating.”
Councilmember Dan Carson listed the costs of challenging district elections. From those, he concluded, “I am supporting district elections. I am supporting the move to go forward in November because I believe I have a fiduciary duty as a city councilmember to protect the city and protect it from losing money we need for police, fire, parks, road maintenance and lots of other things that are really important around here.”
He noted on the upside that district elections would reduce election costs and open the door for some new people to enter our political process.
He said, “We need to go into this with eyes wide open.”
He argued he was not convinced this would increase minority representation. “I am not convinced of that at all and I think it could well prove out to be just the opposite,” he said. He is also concerned that if we go to a district election, “do we lose our focus on what’s good for the city as a whole?
“I don’t like this process,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate for a former city councilmember and county supervisor who resides in Woodland, who after he retires from public office, turns around and hits the city with a demand letter that says, if you don’t do what I say right away, I’m going to take away millions of hard earned tax dollars that belong to your city. That’s really wrong.”
He said he thought we need to “not let outsiders divide us.”
Mayor Brett Lee added, “I found that demand letter fairly offensive. I don’t think it was coming from a place of sincere desire of improving the governance of Davis.”
When the council voted on the motion to move the elections to November 2020, Gloria Partida added, “Can we add that we really don’t like it?”
The council was unanimous in their dislike for this process, in addition to support for moving to the ultimate remedy – district elections in November.
—David M. Greenwald reporting