Arroyo Grande could change how it elects City Council members. Here’s why

Arroyo Grande could be the next California city to ditch at-large elections in favor of electing representatives from districts around the city.

The City Council will decide Tuesday if it wants to move from at-large elections — in which voters pick from a field of candidates — to district elections in which voters elect representatives who reside in their district.

According to an Arroyo Grande staff report, the city received a letter Oct. 5 from attorney Robert Goodman on behalf of resident Maria Minicucci claiming the city’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act.

The letter threatened the city with litigation if it did not transition to district elections.

City Attorney Heather Whitham said this is a trend “sweeping the state.”

“It’s nothing specific to Arroyo Grande,” she said. “Maybe close to 100 cities across the state have been transitioning. It’s definitely a trend.”

Paso Robles has been in the midst of switching its elections to districts since it received a similar challenge in 2018; it plans to hold its first district-based election in 2020. Grover Beach confirmed its intention to transition in July, with plans to hold its first district election in 2022.

The California Voting Rights Act prohibits at-large elections that “impair the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election,” according to the staff report.

Supporters claim that switching to a district model can increase diversity of representatives and help increase representation in disadvantaged communities.

In Arroyo Grande, the change would definitely change the way City Council members are elected, but would not change mayoral elections, since the mayor’s position would likely still be at-large, Whitham noted.

Whitham is recommending the city confirm its intention to transition and avoid a potentially costly lawsuit.

“No city that we are aware of has been successful in court challenging such a decision,” she told The Tribune in a phone interview Friday. “Either we voluntarily transition or face litigation.”

The switch wouldn’t be without its own costs: The city would be on the hook for the cost of hiring a demographer to draft district maps, as well as public outreach costs as the city decides how it wants to approach transitioning, Whitham said.

The city is also responsible for paying Minicucci’s legal fees, approximately $31,000, according to the staff report.

If the council chooses to switch to district elections, the changes wouldn’t impact the coming election cycle, Whitham said. Instead, they would go into effect in 2022 so that data from the 2020 Census can be used to draw the maps.

In the interim, the city would host several public outreach events to help determine how exactly it wants to transition, she said.

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Kaytlyn Leslie writes about business and development for The San Luis Obispo Tribune. Hailing from Nipomo, she also covers city governments and happenings in the South County region, including Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and Grover Beach. She joined The Tribune in 2013 after graduating from Cal Poly with her journalism degree.