City Hall

Citrus Heights takes first step towards district-based elections

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

Sentinel staff report–
Citrus Heights council members on Thursday night voted unanimously — yet reluctantly — to initiate the process to divide the city into five council districts and change how voters elect council members. Unless an alternative legal option arises, the city now has 90 days, and potentially up to 180 days, to hold five public hearings and draw up new district maps.

The council’s action followed the receipt of a demand letter last month by 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. 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.

From last week: Demand letter says Citrus Heights elections must change

“I really feel like we’re being held hostage,” said Mayor Jeannie Bruins during the meeting, noting that no city had prevailed in multiple lawsuits Shenkman has filed in other cities over similar claims. “Had there been maybe even one city who had prevailed against these lawsuits, there might be a hair of a chance — but to the best of our knowledge and the research our attorney has done, no city has prevailed, and so the question is: do we spend the money [on] a case that we will probably lose. And I don’t think that’s the best use of our taxpayer dollars.”

She also reiterated her belief that minority populations in Citrus Heights are spread throughout the city, rather than concentrated in pockets. “So I don’t think dividing our city into districts is going to solve any of these issues,” she said. “We may very well end up with the same percentage of Hispanics on the City Council as we have today.”

According to Shenkman’s demand letter, 16.5 percent of the population in Citrus Heights was Latino, as of the 2010 U.S. Census, but “there has not been one Latino to ever serve on the City’s Council.” His demand letter calls the absence of elected Latinos “outwardly disturbing” as well as “fundamentally hostile towards Latino participation.”

Read the demand letter and staff report: click here.

While the council voted Thursday to initiate the shift toward district-based elections, several council members indicated those plans could still change if another option arises.

“While I’ll support this today, I would encourage, cheaply, our city attorney to look at all avenues out there that might be another possibility without getting to that $2-4 million figure,” Vice Mayor Jeff Slowey said during the council meeting, making reference to the large amounts other cities have spent fighting similar lawsuits.

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.

Bruins said the “ultimate answer” would be for state legislators to change requirements of the CVRA, but doubted any changes at the state level could be done soon enough.

The city was facing a Jan. 17 deadline to reply to the demand letter, in order to qualify for “safe harbor” provisions in state law that would cap payouts to Shenkman at $30,000.

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

Two members of the public addressed the item, one of whom said he opposed district-based voting and another who suggested the City Council consider implementing “ranked-choice” voting, similar to how San Francisco and a handful of other cities elect some of their officials. With ranked-choice elections, voters rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice, which some say results in more fair elections.

Bruins said the city would “look into” the option of ranked-choice elections. City Attorney Ruthanne Ziegler told the City Council she was not aware of whether ranked-choice voting would meet CVRA standards and whether it would be allowed by Sacramento County elections officials.

What criteria will be followed to create districts?
As referenced in the council’s agenda packet, the following criteria would legally be required to be followed if new district maps were to be created for Citrus Heights:

  • 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.

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 would the transition work?
According to a city staff report: No current council member’s term would 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.

Want to share your thoughts on how elections are conducted in Citrus Heights? Click here to submit a letter to the editor. The Sentinel’s policy is to publish every letter that comes in.