At its Feb. 26 meeting the Sunnyvale City Council voted unanimously to put a charter change measure on the March 2020 ballot to adopt a by-district system for City Council in time for the November 2020 general election.
Sunnyvale’s charter specifies the City’s election system, so it can only be changed by a public referendum, according to City officials. Some, including Council Member Michael Goldman, argue that state law (Government Code 34886) allows any California city to institute by-district elections without a voter referendum. However, the majority of the Council voted in December to move forward with a charter change referendum.
The Sunnyvale City Council began considering a change to the City’s election system last summer. In early October, Sunnyvale received a letter advising the City that its at-large by-seat system violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
Last December the Council adopted a resolution of intent to change to by-district elections in 2020 or 2022, which some said exposed the City to the risk of a lawsuit.
California law allows a “safe harbor” period, 45 days, to adopt a formal resolution to change to by-district elections, during which time the City can’t be sued. The December Council resolution extended the safe harbor to 90 days. After the Council decision last week, the potential plaintiffs in the case agreed to extend the safe harbor, according to Sunnyvale City Attorney John Nagel.
The possibility that there would be another at-large election in 2020 resulted in a second letter from attorneys Laura Ho and Ginger Grimes of Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho, and Richard Konda of the Asian Law Alliance, encouraging Sunnyvale to adopt a plan for by-district elections in November 2020.
“It is high probability that if a measure is not placed on the March 2020 ballot there will be a lawsuit,” said City Attorney Nagel at the Feb. 26 meeting.
Public Opinion is Clear: It’s Time for By-District Elections
Public sentiment is strongly in favor of by-district elections and making the change before the general election. Sunnyvale conducted an online survey that found 81 percent of respondents in favor of making the change in time for the November 2020 election.
“Given the outreach we have had with community, there’s a strong preference for March 2020 for a charter change,” said Sunnyvale Deputy City Manager Jaqui Guzmán. “Given that other alternatives would lead to a lawsuit, staff is recommending that Council give us direction to come back with a districting plan for a March 2020 ballot change.”
Of the roughly 20 speakers that night, virtually all were in favor of district elections; many saying that in addition to protecting Sunnyvale from a multi-million dollar lawsuit, by-district elections would provide better representation, more inclusive city government and make Council Members more responsive to neighborhood interests.
One speaker said that the Council shouldn’t let the threat of a lawsuit “steamroll” the City its decision-making. Every other speaker urged the necessity of avoiding the lawsuit steamroller.
“It’s foolish to risk a lawsuit when no one has ever won one,” said resident John Cordes.
Council Member Glenn Hendricks asked if the potential plaintiffs had agreed that the plan would “satisfy them and we won’t have a lawsuit?”
“It’s our belief that if we do go to the March 2020 election that would discourage other [lawsuit] filers,” said City Attorney Nagel, “because that’s the earliest date we can have a charter change.”
Outreach and Opportunities For Participation
The City’s consultant, Placeworks’ David Early, laid out the plan at the Feb. 26 Council meeting. Now through June is an education phase: educating residents about the CVRA and Sunnyvale’s demographics — the City is 41 percent Asian, 35 percent white and 19 percent Hispanic — and alternatives. Election district maps will be developed in the second half of this year, and the City will provide online mapping tools for residents.
It includes direct outreach to residents and local non-profit organizations; social media and daily and weekly newspapers, including foreign language and ethnic publications; workshops with babysitting and translators at a wide variety of community centers, schools, neighborhood centers and religious organizations; “pop-up” events at public gatherings; and a dedicated website, SunnyvaleElections.org.
During the community outreach/input meetings, the City will also gauge public sentiment about whether Sunnyvale should have six districts and a directly elected mayor or seven districts with the current system of the Council appointing the mayor.