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Legal pressure has prompted Oakley leaders to begin the process of changing the selection process for city councilmembers.

The switch would replace the current at-large election process with a system in which councilmembers are elected by a district that each would represent.

The change comes on the heels of threats of a lawsuit from a Southern California-based attorney, alleging that Oakley’s current 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.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman sent a letter to the city threatening legal action if it did not voluntarily change its at-large election system. Shenkman represents the nonprofit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project — the nation’s largest and oldest nonpartisan Latino voter participation organization — which he says includes Oakley residents.

Several other state 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.

“As of the 2010 census, Oakley had a population of 35,432,” said Shenkman. “This data shows that Latinos comprise 35% of the city’s population as of 2010, and likely a greater proportion today. However, Latinos have never been represented on the Oakley City Council in that proportion.…The contrast between the significant Latino proportion of the electorate and the historical underrepresentation of Latinos to be elected to the Oakley City Council is outwardly disturbing and fundamentally hostile towards participation from members of this protected class.”

Shenkman specifically highlighted Latino candidate Dezi Pina’s failed 2016 and 2018 council election attempts, despite receiving significant support from the city’s Latino community.

“These elections evidence vote dilution, which is directly attributable to the city’s unlawful at-large election system,” Shenkman’s letter states.

City Attorney Derek Cole declined to take a position on Shenkman’s assertions but noted that even waging a fight against the claims, let alone potentially losing in court, could be costly for the city.

The city of Santa Monica has spent upwards of $10 million in its challenge fighting similar demands, and the city of Santa Clara spent around $3.3 million in its unsuccessful bid to resist change.

“Even if we have a 75 percent chance of (challenging the demands and winning), that 25 percent chance we are wrong could come with a multi-million-dollar price tag,” Cole said.

In comparison, the voluntary change is expected to cost the city up to an estimated $50,000 in demographer and potentially other consultant fees. An additional $33,000 could be paid to reimburse the plaintiff for its documented attorney’s fees and costs, a state-driven cap aimed at providing cities a safe harbor from CVRA litigation. All but one Oakley councilmember — Randy Pope — voted in support of the city’s switch.

Pope noted that districting the city could actually end up creating polarized voting, since only 8,000 of the city’s estimated 44,000 residents voted in the last election.

“I see a massive opportunity there for unfair representation,” he said.

But other councilmembers believed it was best for the city to move forward.

Councilmember Aaron Meadows hinted that not changing is too big a risk for the municipality.

“Our chances of winning (a challenge in court) are pretty slim, so we kind of have a gun held to our head,” he said.

Fellow councilmember Anissa Williams felt that implementing districts could increase community engagement.

“I think there is something to be said for people getting more invested in the people they are electing and their community, if the people that are running sort of represent them,” she said. “I had people who said they had never voted before who did vote because they believed in me. I think it would open up exactly what we are trying to get here: further community engagement and really making sure we are reaching everyone.”

The council’s decision paves the way for the city’s election map to be divided into four or five council-chosen areas, with future candidates elected by and representing the districts in which they live.

The council hasn’t decided if the fifth council seat will be reserved for an at-large-elected mayor or a fifth district-based councilmember, which would relegate the mayor position to a rotation of councilmembers.

Going forward, the council will hold a series of yet-to-be scheduled meetings, intended to allow residents to weigh in on the composition of the districts and to provide input regarding the content of the draft maps and the proposed sequence of elections, before the council will formally adopt the district boundaries.

Those meetings could begin as early as September, Cole said.

For more information on the council’s decision, visit https://bit.ly/3ixplzx

To read Shenkman’s complete demand letter, visit https://bit.ly/3wPZ58Q.

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