More and more Orange County cities have been shifting from at-large to by-district systems for electing their city council. In nearly every case, it is in response to actual or threatened litigation under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) – a 2002 state law so written that it is very difficult and expensive to local governments which prefer at-large elections to prevail in court.
The Lake Forest City Council recently voted to shift to by-district elections at the request of contrarian Councilman Jim Gardner. [subsequent to Gardner’s request, CVRA litigator Kevin Shenkman found a Lake Forest plaintiff to threaten a lawsuit in order to get a settlement payday, courtesy of Lake Forest taxpayers.] If the council had voted to stay with at-large elections, Shenkman would have in all likelihood prevailed in court and collected substantial attorney fees from the city. A new state law caps those fees at $30,000 if cities settle quickly, creating a major disincentive to fight CVRA lawsuits; this was a major factor in the Lake Forest City Council’s approval.
By-district election proponents usually couch their advocacy in the language of “neighborhood representation” and leveling the election playing field for grass-roots candidates. Gardner, however, has explicitly stated he supports by-district election out of the belief it will hurt his council opponents and build his own political power. Here’s a Facebook post Gardner published in December 2016:
Gardner is explicit that the aim of his advocacy for by-district is fueled by a desire to push two of his three council adversaries – Councilmembers Scott Voigts, Dwight Robinson and Andrew Hamilton — off of the city council and engineer his own council majority.
That would make for an interesting ballot argument.
Since Councilman Gardner has plainly admitted his ambition to use the move to by-district elections as a means for advancing his personal political power, Lake Forest residents should keep a watchful eye on his statements and actions as the council district map is drawn.