City officials reported Tuesday from closed session that the city of Santa Clarita will fight a lawsuit posed by the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes, which alleges civil rights discrimination.
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The report followed a lengthy discussion that City Council were advised not to comment on, according to Joe Montes, city attorney for Santa Clarita.
“The city has decided to defend the lawsuit and the city attorney’s office will be issuing a statement,” said city Councilman TimBen Boydston. “Because we are in litigation at this time, it would not be correct for me to make a statement at this time.”
The suit alleges that the city’s system of at-large elections for its council members discriminates against Latino voters.
Latino voters make up nearly one-third of the city’s population, according to the suit, which cites the fact that, while there have been Latino candidates, none have ever been successful.
“The city has just recently been served with this action,” according to a statement from Gail Ortiz, city spokeswoman. “The city had no prior notice of the allegations of a violation of the California Voting Rights Act, or that the action would be filed. The city takes the allegation of the complaint seriously.”
While city officials are remaining tight-lipped, reaction throughout the city remains mixed.
The William S. Hart Union High School District currently is not involved in any litigation, but Hart board President Joe Messina attacked the lawsuits as irresponsible in an interview with KHTS.
Information collected by Redistricting Partners, a demographer and political consulting agency, has shown that single-member districts would only make the problem worse.
The school districts used portions of this data to justify moving elections to the county’s Board of Supervisors, which nixed the move.
However, the data has not been made available to the public. Several requests for the data study that was paid for by taxpayer funds has not yet received a response.
Carl Boyer, the city of Santa Clarita’s first mayor, who literally wrote the book on Santa Clarita, titled “Santa Clarita,” which detailed the city’s formation, weighed in with a different opinion.
“I made it pretty clear when we incorporated that I thought districtwide was the way to go,” Boyer said. “And I’m thinking perhaps now is the time for change.”
Campaigns for smaller-district elections would be much less expensive and, therefore, more accessible, he said.
“The elections have gotten to be so expensive that running for a council member in a district would be a lot cheaper,” he said.
“When I was running (in 1987), I think I spent $1,100,” he said. This paid for full-page ads in The Signal, the (now defunct) Canyon Call, and for a direct mailer into Friendly Valley, “because they wouldn’t let me go door to door there,” he said.
“Some of these guys running now are spending $50,000,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The city is hiring two firms to defend itself in the lawsuit, Burke, Williams & Sorensen LLP, which is the firm Montes works for, and Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross and Leoni LLP.
Nielsen Merksamer was chosen to assist because of their experience with Voting Rights Act litigation, Montes said.
In a recent KHTS interview, Kevin Shenkman, an attorney for Shenkman and Hughes, said settling the discrimination claim without litigation would be the best thing for all parties, because such action can be costly.
The firm is handling the litigation for three civil rights suits against Santa Clarita Valley public agencies that could cost local taxpayers anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to millions in legal fees.
The suits, which are very similar to one that Shenkman’s firm is litigating in Palmdale, allege that at-large elections, which take place throughout the Santa Clarita Valley, have denied access to voters.
A similar suit filed against the city of Modesto ended in more than $3 million in legal fees, according to Shenkman, who is also representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Sulphur Springs School District and the Santa Clarita Community College District.
“It’s a sensitive matter for the city,” said Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar, “and (City Council members) certainly do not want to make any statement that might be problematic for the city.”
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Source: Santa Clarita News