Paso Robles may change the way voters choose their elected representatives after being accused of watering down Latino residents’ political influence.
The City Council on Tuesday will consider shifting the city’s electoral system from its current “at large” model, which allows council members living anywhere in Paso Robles to be elected by the entire population.
The move was prompted by a letter the city received in August from Kevin Shenkman, a lawyer representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), a Los Angeles nonprofit dedicated to increasing Latino and minority participation in elections.
The letter — which The Tribune obtained through a California Public Records Act request — alleges Paso Robles’ elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 because they result in racially polarized voting, meaning the political preferences of the city’s racial majority cancel out those of its Latino minority.
“Paso Robles’ at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Paso Robles’ council elections,” Shenkman wrote.
Latinos make up more than one-third of the city’s population, according to the letter.
Even so, Maria Garcia — who’s running for one of two council seats up for grabs in November — is Paso Robles’ first Latina council candidate in 20 years. Only two of the 27 appointed city officials are Latinos.
Shenkman argues this is the result of a decrease in Latino political participation that can be attributed to residents feeling powerless and underrepresented.
Although the City Council doesn’t reflect Paso Robles’ population demographics, officials haven’t done anything to change the situation, he wrote.
“Instead, it has opened up public discussion on Senate Bill 54 (California’s sanctuary law), providing 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.”
The SVREP urges the council to adopt a different electoral system that allows Latino residents a better chance to elect candidates they prefer. If Paso Robles doesn’t change the way its elections are run, the SVREP plans to take the city to court.
Shenkman has represented the SVREP in similar cases throughout California. He won an influential California Voting Rights Act case against Palmdale — a city northeast of Los Angeles — in 2015, forcing officials pay $4.5 million and change the electoral system.
According to a city staff report, the council could consider adopting a “by-district” system, which would divide up the city and require voters to elect a single candidate to represent their area.
If the council approves a resolution to begin transitioning to a by-district system, the process would involve a demographic analysis and map-drawing process that would require at least four public meetings over the course of 90 to 180 days.
The city would likely spend about $60,000 on this process, with $30,000 going to Shenkman for attorney fees and no more than $30,000 going toward the district map studies.
If Paso Robles ends up shifting to a by-district model, the change wouldn’t occur until after the upcoming November election.
City Manager Tom Frutchey said adopting the resolution of intent “is not irrevocable,” but the city will do what’s required by law.
“We want to do what’s best for the community by making a fact-based decision,” he said. “We won’t know what the facts are until we do an analysis.”
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