Faced with the threat of a civil rights lawsuit, the city of Citrus Heights may soon change how it elects city council members.
The Citrus Heights City Council Thursday will consider changing to an election system in which the city is divided in five districts, with residents from those areas electing a council person who resides in the district. Currently, candidates for the five city council positions are elected by city-wide “at-large” voting and may reside anywhere in Citrus Heights.
The potential change was prompted by a letter demanding the switch from Malibu civil rights attorney Kevin Shenkman.
Shenkman has sent demand letters — and subsequently sued — multiple cities throughout California over at-large voting, alleging that it discriminates against minority groups by limiting their ability to elect representation. In 2001, the state passed the California Voting Rights Act, which made it easier for voters to protest at-large election systems if evidence indicated such voting was impairing the ability of minority groups to elect candidates. The law went into effect in 2003.
In his letter, Shenkman alleges that Citrus Heights’ Latino population has been disenfranchised under the current at-large election system. About 13 percent of the voting age population of Citrus Heights identifies as Hispanic, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
“Not only is the contrast between the significant Latino portion of the electorate and absence of Latinos to be elected to the Citrus Heights City Council outwardly disturbing, it is also fundamentally hostile towards Latino participation,” the demand letter reads.
In a report to city council, city staff recommends that Citrus Heights declare its intent to switch systems. The report states “there is no city or public agency that has successfully defended an ‘at large’ method of election, when challenged under the CVRA” in court.
Mayor Jeannie Bruins said she doesn’t agree with the allegations of the demand letter because there are no neighborhoods in the city with a Latino majority.
“We may have 15 percent of the population (Hispanic) but they’re spread throughout the city, so districting is not going to establish any voting rights or representation that doesn’t already exist,” she said.
2017 U.S. Census estimates do not show any “block groups,” the smallest geographical area the bureau tracks, in Citrus Heights that contain a majority Hispanic population.
Shenkman said, however, that even when cities using by-district elections lack minority-majority districts, his firm has found the number Latinos elected increases because district elections may encourage and support lower-cost forms of campaigning, such as canvassing.
Shenkman said that the firm has been responsible for “converting over 100 jurisdictions” to district systems.
The city may make the change to avoid expensive litigation, Bruins said. The city has up to 180 days to vote to switch systems and hold community forums, or face a lawsuit, according to the Voting Rights Act.
Settlement fees for cities attempting to defend against a CVRA lawsuit have at times cost millions. In 2008, Modesto was forced to pay $3 million, and in 2015, Shenkman’s firm won its legal battle against the city of Palmdale, costing the city $4.5 million in settlement.
In the lastest failed legal challenge, a judge ordered the city of Santa Monica to end its use of at-large elections, with the city’s legal fees ranging from $2 million to $4 million, according to the Citrus Heights staff report.
City staff estimates transitioning to a by-district election system would cost Citrus Heights between $50,000 and $100,000, including a payment to Shenkman’s law firm capped at $30,000 and hiring a demographer to assist with drawing boundaries.
“My gut feeling is we don’t have the stomach to pour out millions of dollars on a cause we won’t prevail on,” said Bruins.
Early last year, Shenkman sent a similar demand letter to the city of Elk Grove. The city currently allows residents to vote for all four district council members, but each candidate must live in the specified city district — an election system known as a “from-district” method.
Elk Grove council members ultimately declined to move forward with transitioning to a “by-district” system, and city clerk Jadon Lindgren said that Elk Grove has not heard from Shenkman’s law firm since last March.
Shenkman said Tuesday that his firm plans to take legal action against Elk Grove “in the next few weeks.”