Lake Forest: By-District Elections Back On The Council Agenda

After being continued several times, the Lake Forest City Council will vote tomorrow on a resolution to transition from at-large council elections to a by-district system.

The question was originally on the April 4 agenda at the request of Councilman Jim Gardner, but was continued to April 18, and then continued again to May 2. In the meantime, the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes – which has earned huge amounts in settlements by suing local governments under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) – sent the city a letter on April 10 alleging Lake Forest’s at-large system is in violation of the CVRA.

A new state law that took effect on January 1 this year caps the fees law firms like Shenkman can collect from local government at $30,000 – as long as the city or school district being threatened with litigation takes steps to shift to by-district council elections within a specific time table.

The question before the city council comes down to whether they want to wage an expensive legal battle with Shenkman to preserve the current at-large system, or move to by-district elections and limit the fees Shenkman can bill for to $30,000.

The CVRA “prohibits the use of an at-large method of election in a political subdivision if it would impair the ability of a protected class, as defined, to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence the outcome of an election. The CVRA provides that a voter who is a member of a protected class may bring an action in superior court to enforce its provisions.” Lake Forest is 70.3% white, 24.6% Latino and 13.1% Asian.

Other recent changes in state law allow cities with populations under 100,000 to transition directly to by-district elections by a council vote alone – bypassing putting the question to the voters. That is simply an option – a city council could still opt for putting the question to the voters.

At the same time, the city would have to decide whether or not to increase the size of the city council, and whether to the mayor should remain a council-appointed or directly-elected office.

If and when the entire plan were approved by the council, the voters or both, the next step would be setting district boundaries and deciding which districts would be on the presidential or off-year election ballots.

The law requires cities to hold at least two hearings at which the public can provide input on district boundaries, plus at least two public hearings on draft voting district maps.  Capping it off is a city council meeting at which a map is chosen and district sequencing decided.

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