Porterville researching district elections

As one of the last hold-outs in Tulare and Kings County, the Porterville City Council settled a lawsuit to convert from at-large to district elections.

The lawsuit was brought by two Latino residents of Porterville who were represented by the Visalia Law Firm of Melo and Sarsfield. The suit was filed on December 5 and quickly settled on December 19.

Porterville’s at-large elections were in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The CVRA passed in 2001 and requires district elections to ensure minority representation on boards and councils.

Cities and special districts rarely fight these types of suits because of a court precedent set several years ago. Palmdale, located in Southern California, engaged in a three-year battle against converting to district elections that ended up costing the city’s taxpayers millions.

The city paid a $4.5 million settlement plus interest to lawyers for the three plaintiffs who argued that minorities have a better chance of winning elections from districts made up of a large proportion of their peers. Voting rights advocates say that at-large elections dilute the minority vote and prevents them from serving on city councils and county supervisor boards.

Most cities, school districts and other jurisdictions targeted under the state’s voting rights law have switched rather than wage costly legal battles.

The Porterville suit stated, “Because of the prevalence of racially polarized voting in City elections, the at-large method of electing its governing City Council has resulted in vote dilution for Latino /Latina residents, as well as other minority voters, impairing their ability to elect candidates of their choice or to influence the outcome of City council elections, and has denied Latino residents, and other minority voters, effective and full political participation in the electoral process, consistent with their numbers in the population. The CVRA was enacted to remedy precisely this kind of vote dilution.”

The suit says that the plaintiffs brought the case because Latinos make up 65% of the population of Porterville but that “only a handful of Latino individuals have ever served on the City Council.”

The suit continues, “The City’s use of an at-large system to elect City Council and the prevalence of racially polarized voting, as well as historical suppression of Latino voting within the City is responsible for the significant under-representation of Latinos on the City Council.”

According to Melo, Porterville is going to do its best to comply with the demands of the suit before the next city council election in November of 2018.

Mayor Milt Stowe and Councilmember Cameron Hamilton will be up for re-election. It has not yet been determined where their respective districts will be or if they intend to run for re- election.

Being a charter city, the judge presiding over the case had to formulate a special order to help save the city money.

Charter cities must put the change to district elections to a vote. But cities cannot violate state laws and a vote by the residents against district elections would be nullified.

Once a judge gives the order, Porterville can proceed in forming the districts without the cost of a special election.

The city must now hold two public hearings within 30 days, hire a demographer to draw up several map options, and hold three more public hearings before adopting a final ordinance. The entire process is projected to take up to 90 days.

Porterville’s Sierra View Hospital District, Exeter District Ambulance, and the Exeter City Council are currently transitioning from at-large to district elections.

All 58 counties in California have already made the transition.

In Kings County, only the Hanford City Council and Kings County Supervisors currently vote by district. The remainder of Kings County boards and cities conduct at-large elections.

That will likely change — the city of Lemoore received a letter threatening a suit at the end of December.

Lemoore City Manager Nathan Olson said the city was planning on moving to district-based elections starting during the November 2020 election, but decided to get the process started now to avoid litigation.

Lemoore has decided to have district-based elections starting in the November 2018 election.

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