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San Luis Obispo Negotiates Extra Time to Consider Potential Changes to Elections

Post Date:12/05/2019 4:30 PM

The City today announced it has negotiated an agreement that will give the City until Jan. 31, 2020, to address the legal and technical claims about how City Council members are elected.  On November 13, 2019, the city received a letter threatening a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act if the city does not decide by January 1, 2020 to switch to electing City Council members by district instead of citywide (“at large”).

The agreement was negotiated between the potential plaintiff’s attorney and city staff last week. Concurrent with the agreement, city staff provided the plaintiffs’ attorney information about existing efforts already underway to advance diversity, equity, inclusivity and good local governance, highlighting the fact that these objectives are an integral part of the City’s planning and budgeting process. 

During this time, the city intends to engage in good faith discussions with the prospective plaintiffs to reach a mutually agreeable resolution to the litigation threat that aligns with the City’s community engagement expectations, as well as the Council’s inclusivity and diversity objectives. 

The City also provided plaintiff’s attorney with information to correct factual errors in the demand letter, which overstated minority influence in local elections and undermine plaintiffs’ conclusions.  According to a letter to the plaintiffs’ attorney from City Attorney Christine Dietrick, the city intends to analyze the factual basis of the claim and pursue talks with plaintiffs about alternative paths to resolution that may achieve even greater diversity and inclusion in City elections than could be achieved through districting, considering the City’s composition and distribution of voters. 

Background

In the last few years dozens of California cities have received similar “demand letters,” all related to provisions in the 2002 California Voting Rights Act. This state law seeks to ensure that the votes of protected minority groups are not diluted in a manner that precludes them from influencing elections. 

Locally, Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Grover Beach, and King City are among the cities making the change to district elections.  Leaders in these communities agreed to switch to District elections based on their assessment of unique characteristics of their communities.   

Under the district election process, cities are divided into geographic districts for the purpose of electing City Council members. Candidates must live in the district in which they are seeking election and only voters living in the district may vote for their City Council person.  Currently in San Luis Obispo, all voters, “at large”, elect all City Council members and the directly elected Mayor. 

Tight timeframe 

By law, cities receiving demand letters have a 45-day period in which they cannot be sued to evaluate options and respond to demand letters. A City can pass a resolution saying it will make the change to district elections and outlining the steps it will take to do that. Or, a City can decline and face a lawsuit to compel district elections. To date, no city that has chosen to litigate has prevailed in a lawsuit, although there are cases on appeal and continuing to make their way through the judicial process. Some cities have rejected districting demand letters on the grounds that there is no evidence of a CVRA violation and have not been sued or have entered into prelitigation settlement agreements.  If a City is sued and loses, the law requires cities to pay all legal fees, which can range from tens of thousands to the several million-dollar range. 

Cities that agree to make the change must follow an aggressive schedule that includes gathering detailed demographic data and holding public hearings to consider district boundaries. Generally, the final district map must be approved within 90 days of making the decision to switch to district elections. 

In April, the San Luis Obispo City Council adopted a vision to guide city policy and other decision making: The City of San Luis Obispo is a dynamic community embracing its future while respecting its past with core values of civility, sustainability, diversity, inclusivity, regionalism, partnership, and resiliency.  The City is hopeful that the CVRA demand can be resolved in a manner that is consistent with its vision and values, honors the uniqueness of our community and does not misdirect valuable resources and community energy away from the important work our community has directed us to do.