Paso will move to elect City Council members by district to avoid voting-rights lawsuit

Paso Robles was accused of disenfranchising Latino voters and threatened with a lawsuit if the city doesn’t change its electoral system.
Paso Robles was accused of disenfranchising Latino voters and threatened with a lawsuit if the city doesn’t change its electoral system.

In two years, Paso Robles voters will likely choose their representatives based on the areas in which they live — a shift that could change the face of the city’s politics.

The City Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously to begin the process of changing Paso Robles’ election system from an at-large model — in which all voters choose representatives from a field of candidates — to a by-district set-up where candidates run in specific geographic areas.

The move was prompted by a letter claiming the city’s elections violate the California Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising Latino voters and threatening litigation if Paso Robles didn’t move to change its voting system.

Lawyer Kevin Shenkman sent the letter on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), a Los Angeles nonprofit dedicated to increasing Latino and minority participation in elections.

Latino residents make up more than one-third of Paso Robles’ population. Even so, Shenkman claims a Latino candidate hasn’t run for office in 20 years.

He used the city’s discussion of Senate Bill 54, California’s “sanctuary state” law, as an example of the need for greater Latino representation in Paso Robles government.

The discussion served as “... a forum for residents to spew hateful, xenophobic comments about an ‘illegal alien invasion.’ Once the public comments concluded, not a single council member admonished the racist sentiments or expressed solidarity with the immigrant population of Paso Robles.”

Paso Robles could fight the potential litigation regarding its electoral system, but no city has successfully challenged a lawsuit and won. And those that have resisted changes have typically ended up on the hook for millions of dollars in legal bills.

Santa Maria and Lompoc recently shifted to by-district election systems after receiving similar letters threatening litigation based on the California Voting Rights Act. Paso Robles would become the first city in San Luis Obispo County to elect its council by districts.

The cities will hold their first elections using the new model in November, according to a story from Noozhawk.com.

A divided council?

On Tuesday, council members expressed their anger about being forced to make what they see as an unnecessary change that could make city politics more divisive.

They expressed concerns about whether district-based representation would cause council members to consider only the interests of their constituents, rather than the city as a whole.

Councilman Fred Strong called the letter and threatened litigation “white-collar crime.” He said other factors, such as council members’ small salaries, do more to disqualify potential candidates.

“You want to see a lousy law? This is a lousy law,” Strong said of the California Voting Rights Act.

Councilman John Hamon said Shenkman is using the state law to his advantage to make money.

“This lawyer has nothing to do with diversity,” he said.

Some residents in attendance questioned the need for the change and how Paso Robles, a city of nearly 32,000 residents, could be divided into districts. Others said they hope it could lead to a more diverse City Council.

“We have a large number of Hispanic residents on the north side of town, and I don’t see any on the council,” Jerry Stover said.

Maria Garcia, a City Council candidate, said she has never felt disempowered, and said she’d rather see money spent on parks and other things the city needs.

“I, myself, have never felt I could never open up in public and approach you in any way,” she said.

Michael Rivera, another council candidate, said he doesn’t see any problem with the city’s current situation.

“It’s sad that we’re at such a point in our history where we’re so divided,” he said.

The city had 45 days to take action following receipt of the letter. With only a couple of days left, council members voted to begin converting to a by-district system.

The council will now hire a demographer and hold public meetings as part of the map-drawing process. The first meeting will likely be held in late October or early November, said City Manager Tom Frutchey.

The first election under the new law could be held in two years, in 2020.

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Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden
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