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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.