On Monday the plaintiffs in Santa Clara’s California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit filed a brief asking the judge to order seven single-member City Council districts in the City in time for the November election. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled on June 6 that Santa Clara’s at-large Council election system violated the CVRA.
Seven districts would effectively return Santa Clara to an appointed Mayor system — the City’s system until 1969 when then-Mayor Gary Gillmor successfully pushed a charter amendment to elect the Mayor directly.
The question centers on whether Santa Clara’s elected “weak” mayor is simply an at-large Council Member by another name. Santa Clara’s Mayor has no executive or special powers.
The office has one vote just like every other Council Member. The only separate function of the City’s mayor is chairing Council meetings.
By contrast, executive — “strong’ — mayors do not have a vote in the legislative body, but have other powers, such as the authority to veto legislation. Executive Mayors are also the chief executives of the city, whereas in Santa Clara the City Manager is the chief executive.
For these reasons, plaintiffs in the suit argue that, “There is no compelling reason for the position of mayor of Santa Clara to be separately elected at-large… the Mayor has no executive powers and no greater legislative authority than any other Council member.
“Recognizing that the at-large election of even one member of a governing board can result in minority vote dilution,” the brief continues, “federal courts addressing city councils on which a mayor acts as principally as just one of the council members have held that the mayor, like all members of the council, should be elected by district-based systems absent special powers or functions of the mayor that make the mayoral position unique.”
Supporters of the defeated Measure A are crying foul on this move, saying that Measure A opponents “hoodwinked” voters into voting against Measure A by not talking about the Mayor’s office.
“They [‘No on A’ committee] campaigned against Measure A by offering a specific 6-district alternative plan, clearly stated on their campaign flyers,” Yes a A chair Rob Jerdonek wrote in an email. “That question [about the elected Mayor] would only be raised under a 7-district plan.”
Measure A supporters also question donations to the No on A campaign from one of the attorneys and some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Attorney Richard Konda of the Asian Law Alliance and plaintiff Wesley Muyokama each donated $100, plaintiff La Donna Yumori-Kaku donated $500 and plaintiff Michael Kaku donated $1,000.
The ‘bait and switch’ accusation comes as a surprise to John McLemore, a member of the No on A committee. He said that the number of districts “was never a priority that I heard of.” Instead, he calls accusation a “red herring to distract people” from Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s political maneuvers and divisive operating style.
Measure A was a straightforward yes/no proposition, saying nothing about anything except the two-district/three-member plan. No on A hasn’t put forward a ballot measure or plan for single member districts.
While the ‘No’ website and mailers speak about single member and “neighborhood’ districts as a remedy for the voting rights violation, their principal emphasis is on what opponents called problems with Measure A: that is was “expensive,” “unequal,” “confusing,” “unfair,” and offered no protection from future CVRA lawsuits.
A passing reference to six election districts was made on a ‘No’ mailer, and a map on the website shows seven districts, with a note that it doesn’t reflect any proposed district boundaries but is simply a “model” for districting.
The plaintiffs in the CVRA lawsuit say that they will present a single-member district plan showing minority-majority (or near-majority) districts at the remedy hearing on July 9.
The question of whether at-large offices combined with single-member district representation constitutes an at-large — and possibly vote-diluting — system has been considered at both the state and federal levels.
California law considers a system with any at-large seats as an at-large system and, thus, subject to the CVRA. Single-member district systems — and only single member district systems — are a safe harbor from CVRA lawsuits. “Any election that involves at-large seats is an at-large system,” said attorney for the plaintiffs, Robert Rubin.
The number of seats is central to the question of fair representation, he says. “If the mayor only has legislative power and there’s no differentiation, “ he said, it’s just another Council seat and, as such, is an opportunity to broaden representation.
Federal voting rights cases have looked at systems where at-large offices were created following a change from at-large to district elections; finding that, in the context of historical vote suppression and discriminatory practices, at-large offices with the same functions and authority as the rest of the elected body continued to suppress and dilute minority votes.
In Dillard v. Crenshaw County, Ala. a federal appeals court ruled that the at-large county commission chair —created after a court ordered the commission to abandon at-large elections and create election districts — acted to continue the suppression of black voters.
“Both historically and practically, the overlap between the roles of the commission and the chairperson do not allow us to consider this office as a separate, single-office position,” the judges wrote in their decision.
Many California cities have kept their elected “weak” mayors while adopting single-member election districts after being threatened with a CVRA lawsuit. However, many also voluntarily replaced their at-large systems with single-member by-district systems.
This year two California cities — Menifee (population 86,000) and Banning (population 31,000) — will vote whether to abolish their elected mayor position and return to an appointed, rotating mayor. On June 5, Banning voters passed a referendum instituting single-member city council districts for electing their City Councils, while Menifee will vote on a similar change in November.
Case number 17CV319862 will be heard at the County Superior Court in San José in Dept. 5 at 9 a.m. with Judge Thomas Kuhnle presiding. For information, you can look the case up at scscourt.org/online_services/case_info.shtml.
Correction: In last week’s paper we incorrectly stated the amount that plaintiff in the CVRA lawsuit against Santa Clara LaDonna Yamuri-Kaku donated to the No on A committee. The correct amount is $500. We also omitted a $500 contribution from plaintiff Michael Kaku.
Updated June 22, 2018 at 1:50 p.m. & June 27, 2018 1:00 p.m.