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Plaintiffs claim the city’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act, diluting the Latino vote

By Allison Jarrell

Plaintiffs in a recent lawsuit filed against the city of San Juan Capistrano over the legality of the city’s at-large council elections are hoping to see more diversity on the dais come November. That desire may be one step closer to becoming reality as the City Council prepares to discuss the potential switch to district elections at its Feb. 16 meeting.

A lawsuit filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) and San Juan residents Tina Auclair and Louie Camacho in the Orange County Superior Court on Jan. 27 claims the city of San Juan Capistrano’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, resulting in “vote dilution for the Latino residents” and denying them “effective political participation in elections to the San Juan Capistrano City Council.”

“Despite a Latino population of approximately 39 percent in the city of San Juan Capistrano, according to the 2010 census, no Latino serves on San Juan Capistrano’s City Council,” the nine-page complaint reads. “Rather, in San Juan Capistrano’s racially charged elections of 2008 and 2010, Latino candidates preferred by the Latino electorate were all defeated by the bloc voting of the non-Latino electorate. The current absence of any Latinos on the San Juan Capistrano City Council reveals a lack of access to the political process.”

“We want a change,” plaintiff Tina Auclair said in an interview. “We want a lawfully elected council as soon as possible.”

Auclair and Camacho are both Latino registered voters in San Juan who “feel compelled to seek redress” for the “dilution of the Latino vote,” according to the suit. Auclair has also identified herself at community forums and City Council meetings as the leading organizer of Capistrano Forward, a coalition of residents who have been outspoken against recent actions of the City Council majority.

According to the complaint, SVREP—a non-partisan Latino voter participation organization—joined Auclair and Camacho in the suit due to “significant” obstacles the group has faced during previous voter registration projects in San Juan, including “a sense of futility among Latinos … due to their lack of representation” on the City Council.

“By de-incentivizing the registration of Latinos eligible to vote, San Juan Capistrano’s at-large election system obstructs SVREP’s efforts to register Latino voters and cause Latino registered voters to actually vote,” the suit claims.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes PC is representing the plaintiffs in the case and said the complaint was filed after a mid-December letter to the city detailing the CVRA violation went unanswered. Shenkman’s firm has been involved in numerous CVRA lawsuits, with plaintiffs winning their cases in cities such as Palmdale, Highland, Fullerton, Garden Grove and Santa Clarita. Shenkman said the case in Palmdale went to trial before the city settled.

When asked initially how he thought the city of San Juan Capistrano would respond, Shenkman said he hoped the council would “do the right thing” and that “the lawsuit would prompt them to take this seriously.”

“We’ll do what we have to do to make sure the voting rights of the Latinos in San Juan Capistrano are no longer abridged,” Shenkman said.

Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Hull of Best Best & Krieger said Wednesday that the city had not yet been served with the suit but noted that discussion regarding the complaint would be on the council’s Feb. 16 closed-session agenda. However, it seems the complaint has drawn immediate action from the City Council, which elected to agendize the topic for the Feb. 16 public session as well.

According to the agenda released on Wednesday, an administrative item regarding a switch to district elections—brought before the council by City Attorney Jeff Ballinger and newly hired City Manager Ben Siegel—asks the council to authorize the transition from the city’s current at-large elections to “by-district” in time for the upcoming election on Nov. 8, 2016. The switch would entail either four or five districts in addition to an elected mayor.

Pending authorization, the council would direct staff to bring back a district-mapping process for future approval that would include at least three community forums. In addition, the council will be asked to authorize Siegel to enter into an agreement with the National Demographics Corporation to provide demographic services at a cost not to exceed $50,000.

According to city staff, no Latino representatives have been elected to the City Council for at least the last five election cycles. Staff said such facts are “relevant to determining whether racially polarized voting exists.

“Given the low threshold, which must be met in order to establish a valid claim under the CVRA, and the cost to the city of defending such actions, most cities have elected to initiate the process to change from an at-large to a by-district election system in order to avoid costly litigation,” staff reported.

Currently, City Councilman Derek Reeve and City Councilwomen Pam Patterson and Kerry Ferguson live within about a mile of each other west of Del Obispo and north of Camino del Avion, with Ferguson and Patterson less than a half mile down the street from each other. Councilman Sam Allevato lives east of the highway off Rancho Viejo Road and Councilman John Perry lives near the golf course off San Juan Creek Road.

The establishment of districts within the city has the potential to shake up that distribution. Reeve took to his public Facebook page Tuesday to applaud the change but not the process.

“While I do too support district elections drawn according to the unique characteristics and interests of the neighborhoods that make them, I find it deeply unfortunate that the plaintiffs have resorted to calling San Juan Capistrano a racist town,” Reeve wrote.

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comments (7)

  • This can’t be correct! You report ” Councilman Sam Allevato lives east of the highway off Rancho Viejo Road.” Yet, He has repeatedly and emphatically said from the dais numerous times “I live off Ortega Highway”

  • When the city considers taking away the funding for the Boys and Girls Club which does so much good for our city’s youth then Reeve should really look to see if the city is appointing people whose views advocate racial harmony.

  • There are several issues wrong with the claim that the City is not diversified in its representation on the City Council. First in the 2010 election the Latino candidate poorly communicated his ideas and his aspirations for election. When he addressed the prospective voters at a meeting he expounded views that were perceived as Socialistic. Secondly, if 39% of the community were Latino then apparently most were eligible to vote because of citizenship issues. If 39% of the community did vote for a specific candidate they would have won a seat on the Council. And lastly, No ethnic deserves to serve on the City Council strictly because they are Latino. That’s racist. If either Auclair or Camacho want to be elected let them stand for election like every other candidate.

  • Please be advised that I have written faxes to Eight of my Elected and Appointed representative,s including Federal and State of California asking for assistance to amend this law. I am not opposed to the fact that the Council has had to make a decision not to defend, I need to get the law fixed so they don’t have to make this kind of decision, in the future..
    Presently the law appears to be defined for cities having populations at or over 100.000.

    These large Cities are required to be voting using the “By District” method, primarily because they generally have “Communities of Interest” within them, where minority residents need special representation, such as “Little Saigon” or “Little Italy”. A small city with a population of under 40,000, our’s is 35,000, residents, have a sprinkling of minorities scattered throughout the city boundaries.

    There is law firm that is doing business in Malibu California, Public Record, that where the attorney does not live in our city, doe snot do any business in our city, does not know who lives in our city , does not know what we do in our City, but,in my opinion, has has used the “Color of Race” to shot gun “form letters ” to other large and small cities suggesting that they are in violation of the CVAL and are required to change the way of voting from The “At Large” method (that is an option for a “General Law” small city with a population under 100, 000 to use), Saying that if they do not change the method, that the law firm will seek judicial relief to make the city change, even though it has been found that there are no concentrated Communities of interest in Wildomar California. To boot, It is written in the law, win or loose, the City still has to pay this Attorneys legal fees. Our city does not have the financial funding to fight such a law suit, and is being forced by intimidation that is unfounded to require this change.
    In doing so, it is violating my civil Voting rights as follows:
    If we vote by the “At Large” method, I and everyone else who is a resident gets to evaluate and to vote on all five of our five candidates up for election to our City Council.

    If we are forced to change to the “By District ” method of voting., I and everyone else in the City will be put into one of five separate districts. That means the I, in my proposed district, will be permitted only evaluate a candidate that is willing to run from my district, and vote for only one put forward from my district. I will have no right to offer my “say” about, or vote for any of the other four candidates up for election to the City Council outside my district. I consider that form of voting to be a violation of my Civil Voting Rights.

    A solution to the problem presented, is to switch to the “From District’ Method of voting. In this manner we would have One (1) Large voting District that we all would come from. We all could evaluate and vote for all five candidates, (No Voting rights are violated) the same as we presently do this way under a different name , still the same type of method as voting using the “At large” method.
    However, The Attorney who sent this threatening letter to a number of cities in California is not willing to accept the “From District” method for a small city such as Wildomar, California.
    Further, Suppose that no one within a particular district is willing to run for office. I, Now have no one to evaluate and elect to represent me. At that point,. the City Council is permitted to appoint a representative for my district, but I would have no say about who that might bed. again, a violation of my rights.

    Bottom Line is: that the California Voting Rights Act law appears to be defining for cities having a population of or over q100,000. They have to , by law, vote using the “By District” method.
    The same law is vague and undefined regarding small cities that have been found to not have any need for special; consideration for minority concentrations. Wildomar has hired a Demographer who has provided statistical maps that show the minority residents are evenly spread throughout the City limits.

    QUESTON: If this is true, Why should Wildomar be threatened by an unfounded Law Suit if we don’t need to make any change? In my opinion, it is redundant, unnecessary and unfounded and is extortion.
    The law needs to be amended to protect small cities against a Law Firm that is considered to be an Officer of the court , and charged with defending laws, by those attorneys who are using the law, under the color of race” rather than for the protection of minority groups, that the law was written for in the first place. There should also be provisions in the law to direct law enforcement agencies to Investigate, Prosecute, convict and Disbar Law firms that use the law for personal gain, if it is found to be extortion and intimidation and unfounded, so that small cities with limited budgets, who can not afford to defend against such law suits, will have no fear if they can’t afford, and/ or are not willing to make any change.
    The law presently identifies in a chart found in section 5, for General Law type cities, under 100,000 ,that provides options for electing officials to City Council.
    They are:
    Vote by the “At Large” Method, Vote by the “By District” Method or Vote by the “From District” Method This after noon our city has called a special meeting with our State Assembly Representative to hear public concerns about issues in the community, I will be there with all my previously sent public record statements and letters. I have additional sent a proposed letter to the opinion editor of the Press Enterprise asking for publication for the benefit and education of the public. Respectfully submitted, Gorge W. Taylor Retired service veteran, resident of Wildomar CA. and concerned Citizen.
    Bottom line : That the Law has to be amended to protect small cities.
    Respectfully submitted, George W, Taylor, U.S. Citizen, Veteran and Concerned Citizen of the small City of Wildomar, California.

  • The problem now is that many of our council members run and fund their elections as slates. Some get money from developers and some have been able to skirt campaign finance rules by using an opinion paper, the Community Common Sense, as their campaign literature. Nobody seems to run as individuals. If they all come from the same area or with the same ideas they will not represent all areas and people of our city. They do not now. There are issues that areas and people of SJC have that are unique to that area. For example some of the members are seeking to stop the funding for the Boys and Girls Club of San Juan Capistrano. This is an important wonderful organization in our community. Who is representing these children on the council?? We need people who will represent all of us.

  • San Juan Capistrano has been targeted by a law firm who makes exorbitant legal fees whether this plaintiff wins of loses. They have a history of going into a town with a Hispanic population and filing a lawsuit just like this one. Tine Auchair moved to San Juan Capistrano in 2015 and suddenly she is a part of an organization called Capistrano Forward. Auchair and Louis Comancho filed the suit claiming that the Latino voters rights are not represented. becasue they do not vote. This is a frivolous law suit which will cost San Juan Capistrano thousands of dollars, win or lose. This same law firm has filed the same suit in six cities in California. To say our Latino population is not represented is not true. There has always been at least one Hispanic persons on the city council for the last twenty years.. Be it voter turn out, or a seat on the city council we vote for the person not their race. This is about money and lawyers. These outrageous lawsuits are happening everywhere. Six cities have fallen prey to this same law firm. I wonder what compensation comes to Auclair and Comancho? .

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