Palmdale settles voting rights lawsuit, moves to district elections
After years of battling an attempt by Latinos and African Americans to divide up the city council into districts, Palmdale officials have given in.
The Palmdale City Council voted Wednesday to allow residents to elect council members by district next year. It also agreed to pay $4.5 million plus interest to cover the attorneys' fees for the three minority residents who sued the city under the Voting Rights Act in 2012. They claimed district wide elections resulted in Latinos and African-Americans being underrepresented in city government.
Dozens of California cities and school districts have faced similar suits over the last decade and changed to a district-based election system. In some cases, just the threat of a suit was enough for municipalities to change their system.
Under at-large voting all registered voters are asked to cast a vote for all candidates.
The settlement requires Palmdale to divide the council into four districts using a map drawn by the plaintiffs. Two of the districts have Latino majorities, about 50.1 percent, said John Mlynar, a city spokesperson.
Attorney Rex Parris said the trial courts ruled that Palmdale’s election system violated the voting rights of minorities and appeals court agreed. He said the case could have been avoided if the city had voluntarily went to district-based elections.
“Palmdale’s council chose to fight for block voting, a winner-take-all system knowing it excludes minority representation,” he said in a statement.
The mayor will continue to be elected citywide. City officials currently on the council will serve until the November 2016 when district-based elections will begin.
Mayor Jim Ledford opposes the new voting system.
“Instead of being able to vote for all four, they can only now vote for one,” he said. “I think it’s worse for representation government.”
Ironically, when Fred Thompson became the first African-American elected to the city council, the lawsuit prevented him from taking his seat because a judge ruled the elections were illegal. But the city council later appointed Thompson when another council member vacated her seat.
Ledford called on the state legislature to amend the California Voting Rights Act.
It makes it illegal for municipalities to hold at-large elections if the process dilutes the voting power of minority groups or denies them political representation. California’s law is an expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He accused Parris - the attorney who filed the case and is also the mayor of the neighboring city of Lancaster - of using state law to cash in on a lawsuit.
“This wasn’t about voting rights,” Ledford said. “It’s not about minorities getting elected. This is about a money grab.”
The city of Fullerton was sued in March under the same law for its at-large election system that plaintiffs allege denies political representation to Asian Americans.
Correction: A earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Fred Thompson was the first minority elected to the Palmdale City Council, based on statements from the Mayor. Thompson is actually the first African-American elected to the city council. KPCC regrets the error.