Exeter Could Be Forced Into By-District Elections

Exeter has apparently become the next location on the hit list of some attorneys having made it their mission to get all of California’s cities and school districts to “comply” with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

In a letter addressed to Exeter City Manager Randy Groom, dated July 14, 2017, Kevin Shenkman, an attorney with Shenkman & Hughes in Malibu, stated that he was writing on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP).

Exeter, he said, “relies on an at-large election system for election candidates to its City Council. Moreover, voting within Exeter is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, and therefore Exeter’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (‘CVRA’).”

Exeter does have an at-large election system – however, that the city is racially polarized is in doubt.

According to the SVREP website, it is a 501c3 national nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles. The website further states:

“The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), founded in 1974, is the largest and oldest non-partisan Latino voter participation organization in the United States.

“SVREP was founded by William C. Velasquez and other Mexican-American political activists to ensure the voting rights of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.”

It is true that Exeter has not had a Hispanic serve on City Council since the late Mayor Torres, who served on council for three terms in the late 1980’s and ‘90s. The data is on their side, Groom said.

However, only one Hispanic has been on the ballot since, he added. In fact in the last council election, there were only two candidates for the two seats on the ballot, and the formal election was cancelled. If divided into districts, it is unclear if there will even be viable candidates willing to run from all districts.

Exeter is not the only Tulare County city to have been hit with a letter of non-compliance. Visalia, for example, begrudgingly changed its council to districts in 2015, following much discussion through council and the public. Voters voted against it twice, but the city still had to comply.

With a population of 131,000, Visalia broke down into five districts for five council members, with at least one having to contain more than a 55% Hispanic vote, to comply with CVRA.

Exeter has a population of 10,500 people – 4,200 of whom are registered voters. The districts could potentially have less than 1,000 registered voters.

Groom said he just never thought this would come to Exeter, being such a small town.

“It just doesn’t seem practical,” he said. “Do you give up, or fight them?”

To-date he said, no city – large or small – that has fought the implementation of the CVRA has won.

Many have just decided not to fight.

Palmdale, Groom said, spent $3 million fighting and lost.

This was also documented in the attorney’s letter to Exeter.

Huntington Beach has a pretty good argument and is still in the battle, he added.

There, out of a population of 190,000, only 38,200 are Hispanic and they are spread out throughout the city. Breaking their seven-person council into districts will not help rally for a Hispanic on council, as there cannot be a 55% Hispanic vote in any given district.

However, Groom fears they will lose their battle, too.

Exeter has a 46% Hispanic population. It should not be difficult to come up with one or more districts with the 55% Hispanic vote mandated.

Complying with the attorney’s demands will cost the city approximately $30,000, at a time when it had already made severe cuts to meet its budget. That cost also does not include staff research time.

“I don’t object to the concept,” Groom said. “It just seems disingenuous.”

It also goes against the Exeter Charter, which says elections will take place at-large.

Nonetheless, Exeter “has taken action to consider transitioning to a district-based voting system to select its City Council Members, replacing its current at-large election system,” Groom has posted to the city’s website.

The city had until September 2 to get back to the attorney, “to discuss a voluntary change to your current at-large system.”

Otherwise, the letter stated, “on behalf of the residents within the jurisdiction, we will be forced to seek judicial relief.”

No “residents” were specifically identified, however, Exeter is moving forward.

The process, Groom stated is as follows:

Under Government Code § 34886 and Elections Code § 10010, the process of conversion consists of: two public hearings; the drawing of draft maps; two additional public hearings; and finally, adoption of an ordinance selecting a district map and establishing the process by which staggered district elections will be implemented. If approved, a district-based election system could be phased in over two election cycles starting in November of 2018 with full implementation in 2020. Each district would elect one Councilmember to a four-year term.

On August 22, 2017, the City Council adopted a Resolution of Intention stating that the City will consider establishing district- based elections for City Council members. Under statutory safe harbor provisions, the process of conversion proceeds as follows:

First public hearing (to be held immediately following adoption of the resolution)

Second public hearing (within 30 days of First public hearing)

Release draft map or maps to the public (not less than 7 days before 3rd public hearing)

Third public hearing

Fourth public hearing (within 45 days of the release of draft map(s))

Introduction and adoption of implementing ordinance (adoption must occur within 90 days of the resolution of intention and not less than 7 days after release of final map to be adopted)

In order to stay within the State’s safe harbor protections and avoid potentially costly legal exposure in the event of a CVRA challenge, this process must be completed within a short 90-day window.

Initiating the process does not require that the City convert to district-based elections. The City Council must subsequently adopt an ordinance to accomplish that result. By remaining within the timing constraints of the safe-harbor statute, the City will limit its exposure to potential litigants if it ultimately transitions to district-based voting.

To comply with a 90-day deadline, Exeter held its first public hearing on September 5. A second hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, September 12. Draft maps are scheduled for completion by October 2, and a third hearing is scheduled for October 10 which will include the drafted maps and a final hearing is set for October 17 with the introduction of an ordinance.

At a regular council meeting on November 14, it is anticipated that adoption of an ordinance will take place.

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