PLEASANTON — The Pleasanton City Council has taken the initial first steps toward moving from an at-large to district-wide elections.
On Aug. 5, the city received a letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman, of Shenkman & Hughes law firm on behalf of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, alleging “racially polarized voting" in Pleasanton and threatening litigation if the city declines to voluntarily convert to district-based elections.
Pleasanton is the latest in a cadre of cities throughout the state that have been facing the same legal challenges to eliminate their at-large systems of electing city councilmembers. Almost all cities that have received a legal challenge have settled claims out of court by agreeing to voluntarily shift to district-based elections. Those that have opposed California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) challenges in courts have ultimately either voluntarily adopted, or have been forced to adopt district-based elections.
“I find it very distasteful, and I have very legitimate concerns that if we go to district, councilmembers will be more concerned about their district and winning reelection than doing what's best for the city,” said Councilmember Kathy Narum. “My other concern is that I think this is an attorney trying to make a quick buck. I find it offensive.”
According to the staff report, the CVRA grants a prevailing plaintiff the right to recover reasonable attorneys' fees and expert witness fees. This has resulted in payment of very large amounts of money in attorneys' fees by cities that have chosen to litigate the CVRA challenge. For example, some of the notable CVRA attorneys' fee settlement amounts that have been reported include: a $4.5 million settlement in the City of Palmdale; a $3 million settlement in the City of Modesto; and a $1.1 million settlement in the City of Anaheim.
Vice Mayor Julie Testa asked if there was a way to reach out to the residents named in the letter, as a way to know who the accusers are and potentially mitigate the demand.
“Ultimately it is not a defense that works in this case,” said Thomas Willis, of Olson Remcho, a law firm specializing in election, redistricting and campaign finance law. “I don’t think that would necessarily work.”
Fighting the demand could prove costly to the city, including attorney fees and limit the city’s ability to have input into the drawing of the city’s boundaries.
To date, only Santa Monica has taken the request to court and the results are pending.
"I do not want a judge or Malibu attorney drawing the maps for Pleasanton," Councilmember Jack Balch said. "The only way I see to preserve that is to move forward with the resolution. I think they will show we are a community that is well dispersed and mixed, and I appreciate that."
Councilmember Valerie Arkin said she did not believe the move to district-wide elections was in the best interest of the residents.
“It is divisive ... I think this is not what it is really intended to do. I think the question that does exist though is that, ‘Does this (district elections) really work?’ I just don’t see this as something that is going to benefit our community,” said Arkin.
Mayor Karla Brown agreed.
“I don’t know if they are going to achieve the goal of diversity on the council (with this),” said Brown. “(But) I say, if you are interested in running for office, I don’t care what ethnicity or sex you are, step up.”
The council has until March 19, 2022 to adopt the changes. According to staff, residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on draft district maps and proposed sequence of elections during several public hearings in January and February of the new year.