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Judge’s decision to cancel Palmdale election creates confusion

Rules city cannot vote at-large

OW Staff Writer | 10/4/2013, midnight
The City of Palmdale plans to immediately file an appeal and seek an emergency ruling in the wake of a ...

PALMDALE, Calif.—The City of Palmdale plans to immediately file an appeal and seek an emergency ruling in the wake of a decision by a superior court judge to halt an upcoming city council election.

According to city officials, “confusion reigned supreme” as voters, city staff and candidates alike wrestled with unanswered questions and confusion regarding the court’s decision regarding the planned Nov. 5 election.

“We have received calls and emails from residents, candidates and even the media wondering just what elections have been cancelled by the judge’s decision in the California Voting Rights Case,” said Palmdale Communications Manager John Mlynar.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney’s ruling stated that the city of Palmdale is “preliminarily enjoined from holding an at-large election (as that term is defined in the California Voting Rights Act) for Palmdale’s City Council, tabulating the results of such an at-large election, or certifying the results of such an at-large election.”

Mooney wrote in his decision that the Northern Los Angeles County city violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by using an election format that dilutes the influence of minority voters.

In the ruling, Mooney said he didn’t consider voter turnout or the effectiveness of past campaigns, only voting patterns. He pointed out that intent to discriminate is not required to prove a violation.

“Plaintiffs’ evidence established that racially polarized voting occurred in the city council elections for the city of Palmdale,” he wrote. Additionally, he also determined that members of a particular class do not need to be geographically concentrated for racially polarized voting to take place.

City Attorney Matthew Ditzhazy says Palmdale hopes to file with the Court of Appeal by today and hopes a decision will be returned in the next few days.

Ditzhazy says among the key grounds for the appeal are that the judge’s decision was unprecedented; that it is contrary to the state election code; that stopping the election would cause irreparable harm to the city, candidates and voters; and the election would engender lack of trust in the electoral system.

Ditzhazy also notes that a hearing will be held Oct. 9 where the judge is suppose to present a legal remedy for the situation.

The lawsuit filed against Palmdale alleged that at-large election methods—in which voters can cast ballots for all seats up for election, not just one based on where they live—prevent minority voters from electing candidates of their choice, a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

According to Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities, such lawsuits have been filed periodically against entities, mostly school districts, since the CVRA was passed in 2001, But legal action against cities did not start occurring at a pronounced rate until the resolution of a lawsuit against the city of Modesto.

“I think that opened the floodgates to these types of lawsuits,” said Whitnell, noting that similar cases have been filed against the city of Santa Clarita, the Santa Clarita Community College District and the Sulphur Springs School District.