Brentwood leaders are one move away from changing how future city councilmembers are elected.
The city council formally introduced an ordinance this week to shift the city’s current at-large election procedure to one in which councilmembers are chosen by representative districts. The mayor will continue to be elected at-large.
The switch comes in response to threats by Walnut Creek attorney Scott Rafferty to sue the city over claims that Brentwood’s voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by fostering an arrangement that dilutes the Latino vote. The CVRA, signed into law in 2002, bans at-large election methods that impair a protected class’s ability to elect its selected candidates or influence an election outcome.
The change’s introduction, approved this week in a 4-1 vote, is slated to be finalized at the city’s July 9 meeting.
Councilmember Karen Rarey cast the lone dissenting vote after expressing concerns that one of the city’s likely future voting districts (District 3) features a disproportionate number of higher-income homes. But when she looked for support from her fellow council members, they remained silent and the vote proceeded.
“It will be my expectation that each person that sits at that dais will represent the entire community,” said Mayor Bob Taylor, who noted the financial burden of fighting and possibly losing a lawsuit forced the council to concede to demands.
The city’s move means its election map will likely be divided into four areas, beginning with the 2020 election, with candidates chosen by and representing districts in which they live.
Candidates in districts 1 and 3 will be elected in 2020, with districts 2 and 4 filled in 2022.
Current council members, however, may not have their terms extended or shortened by the process, meaning that 2018-elected council members Joel Bryant and Johnny Rodriguez will retain their at-large seats through November 2022. The terms of fellow council members Claudette Staton and Karen Rarey are up in 2020.
Rafferty, the attorney demanding the change, was not in attendance at the meeting this week, but has previously said, “This community is growing quickly, and there have been times in the past the membership of the council has been concentrated in one area. That has some disadvantages.”
The change is estimated to cost the city up to $180,000 — far less than the legal fees it could rack up in a lawsuit, according to a city staff report.
Multiple other entities, including the nearby cities of Antioch, Concord and Martinez, have voluntarily adopted ordinances to transition from at-large to district-based election systems, after facing similar demands.
Municipalities who tried to fight the requests have ended up paying the price. The Southern California city of Palmdale was ordered to pay more than $4.6 million in its unsuccessful attempt to fight a similar case, and Santa Barbara paid about $900,000 in attorneys’ fees and expert costs to settle a similar lawsuit.
“Like the vast majority of cities and special districts that received similar letters, (the council) decided the cost of litigating the demand letter was too great and directed (city staff) to move forward with the process,” said City Attorney Damien Brower.
The city’s district map, also slated for adoption at the July 9 meeting, was created after residents’ input was sought and several public meetings were held over the last several months to mull over different map configurations.
The council directed its demographer to follow traditional district creation criteria, including keeping neighborhoods whole, making districts compact, following obvious borders and creating evenly populated districts based on the most current census data, in this case from 2010.
Other requests included placing the Shadow Lakes and Deer Ridge communities in the same district, not separating the Trilogy and Summerset active senior developments into different districts and paying attention to current school district enrollment zones.
It’s expected the city’s chosen map configuration will be altered after the 2020 election to incorporate that year’s census numbers into the design.
Resident Rod Flohr said this week he felt the map violates the state constitution, because the council directed the demographer to slightly alter districts 2 and 4 during a prior public meeting, at least in part to allow Latino Council member Johnny Rodriguez to serve District 2 with its high Latino population.
“As the only African American on the council, it makes sense that I would serve District 1,” Staton said during the prior meeting. “It also makes sense that Councilmember Rodriguez would be permitted to represent District 2, where many of the Latino residents live.”
Flohr said the move violates the state constitution, which reads, “The place of residence of any incumbent or political candidate shall not be considered in the creation of a map. Districts shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party.”
But Brower, the city attorney, said that statute applies only to statewide elections.
“It does not apply to the city of Brentwood,” Brower said.
Rarey expressed a separate concern about District 3’s apparent stock of high-income homes, but it didn’t sway the council.
“I have a problem with that,” Rarey said. I think a district should represent a variety of income levels and not just the rich or poor.”
The council is scheduled to formally adopt the new voting system and its accompanying district map at its July 9 meeting.
To view the proposed final map, or for more information on the district election process, visit bit.ly/thepressnet_schedule.