The Brentwood City Council will vote Tuesday on a recommendation to move from at-large city council elections to district elections. The council will discuss the steps to be taken such as the time from for the action and the number of council districts.
If approved, Brentwood would begin district elections of its four councilmembers beginning in 2020 and the process could cost the city as much as $180k.
According to the staff report:
The City of Brentwood currently has an at-large election system, which means that voters from the entire City choose each of the four (4) council members and Mayor. The council members’ are elected for four year terms. Their terms of office are staggered, and two are up for election every two years. In 1982, the voters approved a measure to make the office of Mayor directly elected in an at- large citywide election; and in 2006, they approved a measure to make the Mayor’s term of office four years.
A district-based election system is one in which the City’s election map would be divided up into four separate areas, or districts. Each district would be represented by one council member who resides in that district and who is chosen by voters who also reside in that particular district. The office of Mayor would still be directly elected by the voters citywide.
The City received a certified letter in November, 2017, from Mr. Scott Rafferty, a Walnut Creek attorney representing the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative (BAVRI). The letter alleged the occurrence of “racially polarized voting” in Brentwood and threatened litigation if the City declined to voluntarily convert to district-based elections for council members.
As defined by the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), “racially polarized voting” means voting in which there is a difference in the choice of candidates or other electoral choices that are preferred by voters in a protected class, and in the choice of candidates and electoral choices that are preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate (Elections Code Section 14026(e)). Mr. Rafferty’s letter asserts that the City’s at-large electoral system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a protected class) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Brentwood’s City Council elections and that, as a result, Brentwood’s at-large electoral system violates the CVRA
The staff report further highlights cases where cities have fought against the California Voting Rights Act and provide examples where litigation has reached $5 million. They highlighted how the City of Santa Barbara paid $900k in attorney fees. The City of Palmdale was ordered to pay attorney fees in excess of $4.6 million in their unsuccessful attempt.
Recently, the City of Antioch and City of Concord received CVRA demand letters and adopted ordinances to transform from at-large elections to district elections.
The City of Brentwood states that its at-large council member electoral system does not violate the CVRA or any provision of the law, but in the public interest it would be best served by considering the transition to a district based electoral system because:
- the CVRA clearly favoring district elections, making it very difficult to prevail in a CVRA lawsuit;
- the extraordinary cost to defend against a CVRA lawsuit;
- the risk of losing such a lawsuit which would require the City to pay the prevailing plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and potentially having district maps drawn by a superior court judge or his or her designee; and
- the applicable $30,000 limit on the City’s liability for plaintiff’s reimbursable costs and attorneys’ fees under the safe harbor provisions.
An agreement has been reached between the parties that allows the safe harbor set forth in Elections Code section 10010 to continue to apply to the City provided the City Council adopts a resolution of intent to transition to district elections by January 31, 2019, and adopts an ordinance adopting a district-based election system within 180 days thereafter. If the Council takes such action, the new districts would be in effect for the 2020 City Council elections. Pursuant to section 10010, should the ordinance be adopted the reasonable costs of the work done by BAVRI’s counsel will be reimbursed up to $30,000
If the council approves the resolution, the council would move towards district elections in 2020 with the Mayor’s seat not impacted by District elections.
Here is the proposed timeline:
- Feb 11, 2019 – Public hearing without Maps to provide input on criteria to be used to draw maps.
- March 11, 2019 – Public Hearing without maps to provide input on criteria to be used for drawing districts Council to provide direction to demographer on desired criteria to be used for drawing maps
- April 3, 2019 – Public Hearing with maps produced by the demographer for consideration and feedback by the public and Council.
- May 1, 2019 – Public Hearing with revised map(s) produced by the demographer for consideration; selection of one of the published maps to be introduced as part of the ordinance to establish districts; and public input and consideration of sequencing of district elections
- June 25, 2019 – Public Meeting to introduce an ordinance setting forth the district election process.
- July 9, 2019 – Public Meeting to adopt the introduced ordinance.
The fiscal impact of moving towards district elections will cost the city approximately $180,00 due to the $150,000 cost of a demographer and possible reimbursement of $30,000 in legal fees.
For the City Council Agenda, click here.