Citrus Heights unanimously approved starting the process of changing its election system to a “by-district” model, splitting the city into five districts where only voters from those areas can elect council members who also reside in the district.
Currently the city uses an “at-large” model, where voters choose from a field of candidates to fill City Council seats. The new model would take effect by the 2020 election, but the three council members elected in 2018 — Mayor Jeannie Bruins, Porsche Middleton and Steve Miller — will still finish out their four-year terms.
The switch comes after being threatened with a lawsuit from Malibu-based lawyer Kevin Shenkman over claims that the city’s current model disenfranchises Latino voters under the California Voter Rights Act. The law, which took effect in 2003, made it easier for voters to protest at-large election systems if evidence indicated such voting impaired the ability of minority groups to elect candidates.
“I really feel like we’re being held hostage,” said Mayor Jeannie Bruins at Thursday’s meeting.
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About 13 percent of the voting age population of Citrus Heights identifies as Hispanic, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Bruins previously told The Bee that “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.”
Still, the threat of an expensive — and losing — legal battle over the switch was ultimately too strong for council members to bear.
“Our position is not that a violation has occurred,” Citrus Heights city attorney Ruthann Ziegler said at Thursday’s meeting. “There are no cases of which I’m aware, and trust me I’ve done a lot of research on this, where a city or other public agency has successfully defended itself against a demand under this particular statute.”
Settlement fees for cities attempting to defend against a Voter Rights Act lawsuit have at times cost millions. In 2008, Modesto was forced to pay $3 million. In 2015, Shenkman’s firm won its legal battle against Palmdale, costing $4.5 million.
Additionally, 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.
Between 80 and 90 cities in California have switched to at-district election systems as a result challenges under the law, Ziegler said.
U.S. Census estimates from 2017 do not show any “block groups,” the smallest geographical area the bureau tracks, in Citrus Heights that contain a majority Hispanic population.
Still, Shenkman previously told The Bee that even when cities using by-district elections lack minority-majority districts, his firm has found the number of Latinos elected increases because district elections may encourage and support lower-cost forms of campaigning, such as canvassing.
“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.
City staff estimates transitioning to a by-district election system would cost Citrus Heights $50,000 to $100,000, including a payment to Shenkman’s law firm capped at $30,000 and hiring a demographer to assist with drawing boundaries.
“I don’t think any of us up here are happy about this, to be honest with you,” Vice Mayor Jeff Slowey said.
District boundaries have yet to be determined, Ziegler said, but she said they will have roughly equal population sizes and attempt to follow “natural” dividers such as creeks and highways. Race cannot be the predominant factor in drawing districts under the state law.