The City of South Pasadena is undergoing a transition to district-based elections after the City Council adopted Resolution 7524 on July 19. The unanimous decision to pass the law, however, was not supported by any of the council-members. Under the threat of a lawsuit which the city simply can’t afford to fight, the controversial law was begrudgingly decreed.
The background behind this is almost as strange as the vote itself. Citing the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, Malibu-based lawyer Kevin Shenkman has been suing cities around Southern California under the pretense of not having accurate representation in their local governments. Shenkman’s motive is objectively positive for the social progression of Southern California; forcing cities such as Palmdale, West Covina and San Juan Capistrano to create a more equal voting system under threat of a very expensive lawsuit. Or so it seems. If the city challenges Shenkman’s allegations in court and loses, the CVRA requires them to pay his legal expenses and other fees, usually millions of dollars total. Because of this, many see the lawyer’s actions as a cash grab and a form of legal extortion.
Shenkman is essentially using a blanket allegation of “racial polarization” to file lawsuits against various cities around the region, whether his case is morally justified or not. In the circumstance of South Pasadena, however, it isn’t. The city is long past its dark history of being a sundown town plagued by racist zoning laws. It is one of many beacons of progressivism in Los Angeles County. A simple look at the relationship between current and past city representatives and the demographics of the city point to anywhere but polarization. The city is already representative of its diverse population. That’s where the controversy lies.
“I’ve reviewed the research we’ve done. We already consulted to look and there really hasn’t been any discrimination,” Mayor Michael Cacciotti said. “We’re such a diverse city. Are we going to spend five million dollars to fight this? Money that could be going to our roads, our sewers, our police, our library. We just couldn’t do that.”
Strong-arming a city like South Pasadena into a district election format would, if anything, hinder the election process rather than celebrate diversity. By forcing the city to zone districts, many of which could be as small as a few blocks, the law could pit two qualified candidates against each other and create an opening for a potentially less qualified candidate in a district with lower competition. The city was also zoned many decades ago when diversity was a four letter word. Creating districts in South Pasadena would only accentuate the differences between the mansions on the east side of the city and the apartment heavy Fremont Corridor.
“I think it’s really going to hurt our city in the long run,” Cacciotti said, citing the looming task of crafting districts that accurately represent all races. “All the nationalities are dispersed through the city, so it’s going to be very difficult.”
There has been immense backlash to the entire situation from both Mayor Cacciotti and the rest of the Council.
“We are the latest victim,” City Clerk Anthony Mejia said. “The City Council saw the writing on the wall that this would be a very, very complicated litigation with an extremely light burden of proof on the plaintiff to show that racially polarized voting has occurred.”
With the threat of Shenkman or another prospective lawyer breathing down their neck during future elections as well as those in the past, the City decided it was best to give in to the legal blackmail.
Cacciotti spoke to Southpasadenan.com of a possible legal limitation which could be placed on the cities that are being forced into district based elections in a similar fashion. This legislation would place a minimum population on cities to be sued for “racial polarization” as a result of at-large elections.
“We’ll have to see what happens,” Cacciotti said regarding potential preventative legislation. “Hopefully it will work out. It’s got to.”