A year ago, residents feared an ‘illegal alien invasion.’ Now Paso is changing its elections

Paso Robles has historically elected few leaders of color — a situation the city’s new election system aims to correct.

The City Council on Tuesday approved a map that completes Paso Robles’ transition to by-district elections, a process that began after the city was accused of violating the California Voting Rights Act.

The city began making the change in September, after receiving a letter from Kevin Shenkman, a lawyer representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP).

The nonprofit aims to increase Latino and minority participation in politics. Dozens of similar letters have been sent to cities across California. Those that fight the change have lost their lawsuits, and millions of dollars, in some cases.

Santa Maria City Council members adopted a district election map in May 2017. The city held its first district elections in November.

The Paso Robles letter claimed the city’s current “at-large” election system — in which voters select City Council members to represent all residents, instead of constituents in specific areas — makes it more difficult for Hispanic or Latino candidates to be competitive.

The SVREP threatened to take legal action if Paso Robles did not change its election system.

The letter claims the city hasn’t fielded a candidate of Hispanic or Latino descent in the past 20 years — at least prior to Councilwoman Maria Garcia’s election in 2018.

Nearly 40% of the city’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to 2017 five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The change comes nearly a year after some residents voiced concerns about an “illegal alien invasion” in Paso Robles and urged the City Council to take a stand against Senate Bill 54, also known as California’s “sanctuary state” law.

City leaders ultimately opted not to oppose the law, but the hearing left an impact — so much so that Shenkman included the incident in his letter to illustrate why the city needs more diverse leadership.

How the new districts will work

The council’s approval on Tuesday was the last step in a process that has involved months of hearings. A Paso Robles resident drew and submitted the selected map, which divides the city into four districts of 7,589 to 7,274 people.

District 1, which stretches from the north end of the downtown area east to Dry Creek Road, has the largest population of Hispanic or Latino residents with 43%.

However, District 4 had the largest estimated number of Latino or Hispanic registered voters in 2016 with 21%.

The four current council members all live in different districts. Councilman John Hamon lives in District 1, Garcia lives in District 2, Councilman Steve Gregory lives in District 3 and Councilman Fred Strong lives in District 4.

Gregory and Strong will be up for election in 2020, and Garcia and Hamon’s seats will be up for grabs in 2022, according to a city staff report.

The mayor will still be elected using the city’s current at-large system.

Permanent districts?

The City Council in January heard a presentation from Michael Latner, a Cal Poly associate professor of political science, on different voting systems the city could adopt.

Among those options is “ranked-choice voting,” a method currently used in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro.

City manager Tom Frutchey said on Tuesday officials are still considering switching election systems after the 2020 election. Even if Paso Robles retains its districts, the city will have to alter the boundaries following the upcoming census.

“Not only did we meet the legal requirements, we did what’s right for the community,” Frutchey said of the district process.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.