The Lindsay City Council is joining a fight to protect the rights of California’s charter cities.
At its final meeting of last year, Lindsay’s governing body voted 4-1 to pen a letter supporting the city of Arcadia’s fight against the California Voter Participation Rights Act (CVPRA). The new law, which went into effect at the start of the year, requires local governing bodies to synchronize their elections with statewide elections in June and November. Opponents say the CVPRA will slow down elections and make them more costly, and it impinges on the right to self-govern at the local level.
Lindsay–like most cities in Kings and Tulare counties–has a charter defining how city business may be conducted, including setting dates for elections. While Lindsay already holds its city council elections in concurrence with general elections, a handful of charter cities do not, and they’ve decided to make what could be a costly stand against what they say is an erosion of rights.
“It’s not necessarily a big issue for us, the city of Lindsay,” said Mayor Pam Kimball. “It’s a request to support other charter cities in the efforts to maintain local control and to have your charter mean something, and the state can’t tell you what you have to change in the charter.”
Lindsay City Manager Bill Zigler says the new hoops the CVPRA asks local authorities to jump through is part of a larger effort by the state to strip away at regional self-control.
“If the Senate bill is approved, you will have some of your charter city rights eroded,” Zigler said. “That’s what it boils down to is you have control right now, you have a lot of local control as a charter city. We’ve seen a move afoot in Sacramento. They have been eroding rights of charter cities.”
Forced Changes and Support
While Zigler referred to the CVPRA as pending, it was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September of 2015, and its provisions went into effect at the start of 2018. Charter cities that are not already compliant have until November of 2022 to change their election cycle to match that of the state. Most have chosen to comply rather than fight a costly legal battle, but at least three, Arcadia in Northern California, and Redondo Beach and Signal Hill in the Los Angeles area are going to challenge the new requirements.
Mayor Kimball says the fight is a matter of principle.
“Also, the sentiment (is) that if there’s an issue with something like elections that could be brought before the city, the city council, that locally they could decide whether this is something that should be changed or not,” she said, “rather than having it go to the courts, having that expense of things going to the courts, and an outside judge deciding how things should be done in our cities.”
The letter from the Lindsay City Council merely supports Arcadia’s effort, and does not put Lindsay directly into the fight.
“We’re not heading this thing up,” Kimball said. “We just had a request from Arcadia, who has their regular elections as part of their charter on off-cycle years. So, it’s a big deal for them, and they’re just requesting other charter cities send a letter of support on it.”
‘Great Arguments on Both Sides’
Almost everyone supports the idea behind the CVPRA, which is intended to increase turnout for elections on local issues. Historically, more voters turn out when a big issue or office, such as a presidential election, are also on the ticket. CVPRA aims to capitalize on that trend, but some think it goes too far.
“I think for our standpoint, the only dog that we have in the fight is we are proposing that we retain local control. We’re not arguing the concept,” Zigler said. “We want to have as many people come out and vote as is possible, but where do you draw the line in the sand relating to local control when you’re a charter city?”
Lindsay will not have to change the way it does business, as the city already holds its regular elections in sync with the state.
“There are other charter cities that do not, and the concern from the state is that you have an under-representation coming out for these special elections, because you’re not electing the president or a senator or something,” Zigler said. “So, there are great arguments on both sides.”
Problems for Cities
Lindsay City Attorney Mario Zamora says the new law remains untested and will until a city holds a regular election off-cycle and the outcome is contested in court. That creates a pitfall for local governments, who may find themselves defending the outcome of an otherwise legal vote at great cost to taxpayers.
“It creates a problem for cities, because the only way for you to test this is to do it, for (an issue) to pass, and then for somebody to challenge it later and say the first election that you had had decreased turnout, so you should not have had the second election,” Zamora said. “It’s not defined what significantly reduced turnout is, so we’re left guessing. “
The text of the law states: “Voter turnout for a regularly scheduled election in a political subdivision is at least 25% less than the average voter turnout within that political subdivision for the previous four statewide general elections.”
“Ultimately, the problem is with it being poorly worded,” Zamora said.
‘Not a Big Deal’
The issue of syncing local elections to statewide ones to increase turnout isn’t a hotly contested issue in itself, but the infringement on local rights is, and that’s what concerns Lindsay City Hall.
“You look at it on face value and you say, ‘Well, what’s wrong with this? It’s not a big deal,’” Zigler said. “It’s not a big deal. It’s really about local control, and whether or not it’s something you want to fight for in this case.”
Councilman Brian Watson says the CVRPA has a laudable goal, but is fundamentally flawed. The issue, he says, will ultimately have to be decided in a courtroom, and that was the intention of those who wrote the law.
“The idea of the continued erosion of the ability of us to manage our cities the way that we see fit is alarming,” Watson said. “That this is more than likely going to be tested in court is more than problematic, and you have unelected individuals doing the job of elected officials in the courtroom setting, and that’s just in my estimation not the way this is all set up and designed to be.”