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First public hearing set for Citrus Heights’ transition to district-based elections

Citrus Heights
Map of Citrus Heights. // Image source: Google

Sentinel staff report–
The first of five public hearings addressing the transition to district-based voting in Citrus Heights has tentatively been set to take place at the end of this month, followed by four more public hearings and final adoption in June.

The Citrus Heights City Council voted unanimously on Jan. 10 to initiate the process to divide the city into council districts. The move followed receipt of a demand letter on Dec. 3, 2018, from a Malibu, Calif.-based attorney, Kevin Shenkman, who said the city’s current method of at-large elections to select council members dilutes the vote of Latino voters and violates the California Voting Rights Act, which favors district-based elections.

From January: Citrus Heights takes first step towards district-based elections

A tentative timeline recently posted on the city’s website shows the first public hearing is slated to take place during the City Council meeting on Feb. 28. City manager’s office spokeswoman Kathrine Cooley said the meeting will include an introduction to the public about districting “and the ways they can be involved in the process of drawing district lines.”

She said additional materials will be released to the public in the City Council’s Feb. 28 agenda packet, which is published on the city’s website the Friday before each council meeting.

Guest Opinion: In favor of district-based voting for Citrus Heights

According to the city’s tentative timeline, the first two public hearings — set for Feb. 28 and March 14 — will discuss composition of districts. A third public hearing is slated for May 9, where draft maps and the sequence of elections will be discussed.

Guest Opinion: District-based voting isn’t the answer for Citrus Heights

The fourth public hearing, listed on the timeline for June 13, is slated for a district map to be adopted and a new ordinance introduced. The final public hearing is listed for June 27, where the new ordinance is to be adopted.

If adopted, the new district-based method of electing City Council members would begin in the November 2020 election. Under district-based elections, Citrus Heights would have five voting districts and each council member would be required to live in the district they represent and only be elected by voters of that district.

During the Jan. 10 council meeting, several City Council members had requested that the city attorney look into possible other legal alternatives to splitting the city into five districts. Asked for an update on whether alternatives are still being looked into, Mayor Bruins told The Sentinel on Wednesday there was “nothing new to report.”

What criteria will be followed to create districts?
As referenced in a city staff report last month, the following criteria are legally required to be followed for the creation of new district maps.

  • Each district must have equal populations or “shall be as nearly equal in population as may be,” which is known as the one person, one vote rule.
  • Race cannot be the “predominant” factor or criteria when drawing districts.
  • The districting plan must comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits districts from diluting minority voting rights and encourages a majority-minority district if the minority group is sufficiently large and such a district can be drawn without race being the predominant factor.

Why is Citrus Heights pursuing district-based voting?
Mayor Jeannie Bruins and Vice Mayor Jeff Slowey have said they reluctantly voted to move towards district-based elections, since no city has prevailed in prior lawsuits Shenkman has filed in other cities over similar claims.

Shenkman’s law firm has successfully sued several cities who did not comply with prior demands to transition to district-based elections, including a lawsuit against the City of Palmdale that resulted in the city paying out $4.5 million in attorneys fees.

What is the CVRA?
As summarized in a city staff report: The CVRA took effect in 2003 and prohibits at-large election systems from impairing the ability of a protected class (e.g. members of a race, color, or language minority group) to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election. Modeled after the Federal Voting Rights Act (“FVRA”), the CVRA was specifically enacted to make it easier for plaintiffs to challenge at-large voting systems employed by many public agencies. To prove a violation of the CVRA, plaintiffs need only show the existence of racially polarized voting—that there is a difference between the candidates or ballot measures preferred by the voters in the protected class compared to voters generally. Plaintiffs are not required to show that members of a protected class live in a geographically compact area or to prove an intent to discriminate on the part of voters or officials.

How will the transition work?
According to a city staff report: No current council member’s term will be cut short, but when his or her term ends an incumbent can only run from the new district in which he or she resides. Thus, the three newly elected council members, regardless of where districts may be drawn, will serve their full four year terms, or until 2022. The term of office for each council member remains four years.

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