Hart district officials changed their elections with a 4-1 vote Wednesday, following a discussion at the Santa Clarita Valley high school district’s governing board meeting.
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The change wasn’t a popular choice among board members, but it provided them with a “safe harbor” from a potential lawsuit, said Hart district governing board President Steve Sturgeon.
“All five board members basically testified last night that we should be able to vote at large — it gives an opportunity for the entire population to choose who their representatives are,” Sturgeon said. “So this becomes a little more exclusive to an area, which was the intent, and we’ll see how it works.”
District officials plan to have the changes in place by the November 2015 election, which is when Sturgeon and Gloria Mercado-Fortine — the lone no vote — will be up for re-election. The move won’t affect the terms of any current board members.
The move creates boundaries within the high school district, and each governing board member elected now has to live within one of five areas within the district. In the current at-large system, in which a representative may live anywhere, and all residents within the William S. Hart Union High School District boundaries.
“Our desire is not to spend general fund money, which should be in the classroom and supporting the teachers, on legals fees,” Sturgeon said.
Mercado-Fortine, who is Hispanic, felt the district was caving in, and was critical of the “agenda” of the plaintiffs who sued three other Santa Clarita Valley governing bodies over the claims that at-large elections disallow federally protected groups, or minority voters, an opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.
“I don’t feel that there is racially polarized voting — I really do not think that is in our valley,” she said, “and I use myself as an example.”
When given an opportunity, people will choose the best candidate, and that’s the way it should be, she added.
“I never felt that i was excluded because I’m a Latina so that’s why i opposed,” she said.
Kevin Shenkman, who represented the plaintiffs in California Voting Rights Act lawsuits against the city of Santa Clarita, the Santa Clarita Community College District and the Sulphur Springs School District — all three of which were settled out of court — said he was happy with the outcome.
The terms of the Santa Clarita lawsuit’s settlement have since been questioned by Santa Clarita officials.
No California Voting Rights Act lawsuit has been successfully defended.
“(Moving to trustee-area elections) is what we requested that they do, and we’re pleased that they’re moving to do it,” Shenkman said. “Despite our work, we make zero dollars on (the Hart district), and we’re perfectly happy with that result.”
Shortly after the lawsuit against the Santa Clarita Community College District was settled, Shenkman’s firm sent four letters to school districts — the Newhall School District, the Saugus Union School District, the Castaic Union School District and Hart, threatening legal action if the districts didn’t move to change their elections.
Hart district officials said their efforts at changing their electoral system have been proactive in nature, and their move to districts was initiated before the governing board received the letter.
The district plans to use a demographer it worked with two years ago, when it was attempting to determine whether the district was in violation of the CVRA, Sturgeon said.
It’s uncertain how the new boundaries lines will be drawn within the current district; however, a demographer will present several options to board members who will vote on the most appropriate choice, Sturgeon said.
The districts will have to be re-evaluated periodically as new Census data is available from the federal government, according to a presentation at the district’s meeting.
The boundaries could create an “area of influence,” he said, which would mean that a minority group might make up a larger percentage of a trustee’s area than it does districtwide, although that’s not the necessarily a requirement, Sturgeon said.
“This really isn’t just a Hispanic issue, this is any subgroup and represented party,” Sturgeon said. “It could be Korean. It could be African American. It could be for anyone.”
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Source: Santa Clarita News