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Tim Myers: Should the Santa Clarita City Council be elected by district?

Posted: March 30, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 30, 2013 2:00 a.m.

On Nov. 3, 1987, a now-remarkable 25 percent to 30 percent of eligible voters in the area midwifed the city of Santa Clarita into existence, voting nearly 67 percent to 33 percent in favor of the formation of the city.

Something not much discussed also occurred on that day that still rings through the city and its politics.

In addition to approving the formation of Santa Clarita, the voters also decided, by a somewhat smaller margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, to approve at-large races for the election of the governing City Council, defeating the alternative of district races. (For trivia junkies, 3,000 fewer voters weighed in on the governance issue than cast votes on the issue of city formation.)

Now a short primer on the differences between an at-large and district system: In an at-large system, all candidates run in the entire city for the number of seats available (in our case, five), with the top vote-getters (majority or otherwise), capturing the available seats.

In a district system, candidates run in a specific geographical area and achieve office when they secure a plurality of votes in that area.

For those who love political trivia, "trusteed district" systems do NOT require candidates to reside in the district they seek to represent, a system used in the United Kingdom for election of members of Parliament.

Now Carl Boyer, in his seminal work on the history of city formation, makes a compelling argument for at-large races when compared to the relative dysfunctional nature of the mega-districts that comprise the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, particularly when it comes to the issue of growth.

In the case of growth and development initiatives, a district council member can always satisfy the NIMBY tendencies of his or her constituents by voting against development projects located in his district while voting for projects in other districts.

Therefore, as with Los Angeles County, new projects receive 4-1 approval, but an elected representative can always swear his or her no-growth passion with respect to votes in that particular district.

But problems also exist with the at-large system that relate to fairness and the voting rights of minorities.

In the first instance of fairness, large vote banks might exist in certain narrow geographic areas of the city that unduly influence the makeup of the City Council. Thankfully, this does not occur in Santa Clarita, since voter turnout stands uniformly low throughout the city.

But what of fairness to certain minority ethnic groups?

The census of 1990 showed that Santa Clarita, then smaller than it is today, held about 80 percent white residents with the remainder primarily Hispanic. The number showed just a smattering of African-American and Asian residents.

What a difference 20 years makes! The census of 2010 showed that minorities now make up just under 45 percent of city residents, with Hispanics numbering 29 percent of the population. Asians make up just under 9 percent, and folks identifying themselves as "mixed race" numbered just under 5 percent.

Yet not one member of the Santa Clarita City Council (to date) sported a Latin or Asian surname.

Hence one of the big criticisms of at-large districts: the majority exerts undue influence over political elections even though a minority suitably concentrated in a contiguous district could elect a candidate of their race.

An active lawsuit currently exists challenging Palmdale’s at-large system for disenfranchising minorities.

In the case of Palmdale, a majority-minority city, at-large elections NEVER resulted in an ethnic minority council member.

I spoke at some length to the attorney involved in the action about six months ago. (The mayor of adjoining Lancaster recently joined the lawsuit against Palmdale in the capacity of co-counsel.)

The attorney mentioned the possibility of also challenging Santa Clarita’s system, noting the unsuccessful candidacies of people with Hispanic surnames.

Would the district system in Santa Clarita possess merit? One can easily see how the development of geographic districts could result in the election of an Hispanic council member from the Newhall area.

Further, the northern parts of Valencia could eventually see the emergence of a local Korean-American politician.

Ironically, however, the upcoming 2014 election could forestall any legal action on districts. With incumbent Frank Ferry not seeking re-election, the most likely outcome sees the incumbents Marsha McLean and Laurene Weste retaining their seats, with the third seat going to the candidate with the highest name recognition, Gloria Mercado-Fortine.

And Santa Clarita would see its first Hispanic council member, another historic event.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. "Myers’ Musings" runs Saturdays in The Signal.


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