In late May, the Los Angeles Times published a story about a Malibu lawyer who was suing cities — alleging they failed to provide representation for low-income and minority neighborhoods. Using the prescriptions of the California Voting Rights Act, attorney Kevin Shenkman was finding success, and the story made clear that other California cities could expect to hear from him. His certified letter to the city of Santa Rosa arrived in mid-July. In it, Shenkman and a voting rights’ group called the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project put the City Council on notice that it could choose to fight a lawsuit or agree to district elections. On Tuesday night, the council capitulated, voting 7-0 to set in motion a process that could lead to district elections next year. Gone would be the system in which seven council members are elected citywide.
After years of heated debate and one contentious ballot measure, the conclusion was strangely muted and anti-climactic. Watching from home, one could see only a tiny audience remained for the council’s discussion.
While some council members welcomed the prospect of district elections and some did not, everyone seemed to know, in the words of Mayor Chris Coursey, that “we have a losing case here.”
Councilman John Sawyer, long an opponent of district elections, admitted, “As much as my heart is not in district elections, it was always a matter of when, not if.” About the threat of lawsuit, he said, “I think we will lose, and it will be very expensive.”