(42790)
 (42789)

The on-again, off-again Palmdale election will take place on Nov. 5 after the California Court of Appeals granted the go-ahead two weeks ago. The court’s ruling stated: “As phrased, the injunction written in the disjunctive, permits the defendant (Palmdale) to hold an at-large election and even count the votes but not to certify the results.”

The controversy involves the use of an “at-large” system of electing council members, as opposed to a district-wide method. The at-large system in Palmdale was said to hinder the ability of minorities to win public office; African American and Latino residents comprise about 69 percent of Palmdale’s population, but only one Latino has won election to the council since the city’s incorporation in 1962, and no Black person has won office.

Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney ruled this summer on an injunction sought by the plaintiff’s attorneys (Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris and Malibu counsel Kevin Shenkman representing voter Juan Jauregui), that in order to proceed with the Nov. 5 election, another system must be put in place.

Palmdale immediately appealed the ruling, however the Court of Appeals deemed Palmdale’s appeal unnecessary.

Now, the election results will be tabulated by the County of Los Angeles in the “… ordinary course of business, after which the city will present the results to the Court of Appeals,” said Palmdale assistant city attorney Noel Doran. After the County Recorder counts and verifies the ballots that evening, the results will be reviewed by the Court of Appeals.

Parris and Shenkman made their case of racially polarized voting by producing a regression analysis of all Palmdale mayoral and council election results since 2000. During this period, they found, only one Latino candidate and no African American candidates were elected under the at-large method.

The 2010 Census reported that Palmdale’s Latino population was about 54.4 percent, and 14.8 percent African American. Both of these populations are geographically concentrated within the city. Lately, all jurisdictions within the state have been encouraged by the CVRA to review its own election history and, if a violation is found, seek advice of its general counsel.

Ledford released a statement in September saying that California’s 11-year-old CVRA has led to a “money grab” by lawyers, although he has yet to comment on why a city with about 70 percent minority population has so few people of color holding office.

“We go after the best and brightest,” Ledford told the Los Angeles Times last month. “I can’t speak for the message of the candidates or their ability to raise the funds and run.” Doran explained that, in the end, the Palmdale election results will be tabulated by the county registrar “in the ordinary course of business,” after which the city will present the results to the court for certification.

“We strongly believe that the citizens of Palmdale have a right to vote for every elected official—not just the person from a district created by a Malibu attorney,” said Doran in reference to Shenkman. “While the plaintiffs want you to believe that they are promoting the voting rights of some through their plan when, in actuality, they are attempting to reduce every Palmdale citizen’s voting power by 80 percent and to do away with their right to directly elect the mayor.”

On Nov. 5, Ledford will defend his 22-year term against Mitcheal Toles of the Green Party; Maggie Campbell, a former write-in candidate for city council; and Lynn Marie Minidis, a local businesswoman.

Those running for city council include Frederick C. Thompson, an educator and commissioner whom Ledford has campaigned for; Richard Loa, a lawyer and former councilmember, and Daniel Duplechan, a local community activist. Campbell, Thompson and Duplechan are African American, while Loa is Latino.

The Antelope Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce believes having a Latino councilmember in Palmdale can serve as a positive influence or “role model” for immigrant residents, particularly the many youth who are naturalized citizens but lack many ethnic heroes within the professional class. “One benefit of having a Latino on the city council is that this person can become a sort of beacon and an example to others that anything is possible, if you work hard and commit to a vision of leadership,” said Barcelona of the Hispanic chamber.

The candidates offer varying backgrounds and political ideals. Toles’ Green Party endorsement means advocating criminal justice reform, rent control and a move to utilize more renewable energy sources.

Campbell, who sought a council seat as a write-in candidate in 2004, is a pastor and a veteran volunteer for several mayoral, senatorial and congressional campaigns. She’s focusing on the economic vitality of the region.

Minidis, vice president and chief financial officer of RedBrick Pizza restaurants, is known locally for her long-time volunteer work with the Antelope Valley Assistance League. Job creation and “restoring Palmdale’s economic prosperity” are among her campaign pledges.

Loa served on the Palmdale City Council from 2001-2005 and is a former assistant director of the California Housing and Community Development Department.

Thompson, former dean of Antelope Valley College and its current foundation director, served for seven years on the Palmdale Planning Commission.

Duplechan, a local minister, is campaigning for affordable housing, more support of law enforcement, and to attract more business entities into the city.

A debate on Oct. 3 revealed that practically none of the candidates believed the election controversy deserved such publicity. “It is just a deprivation of the voting rights of almost 70,000 people in Palmdale,” Loa said. Thompson said it was a “farce” to cancel the election. “I never felt like I was being disenfranchised because of my ethnicity. So this is a bunch of malarkey.” Duplechan, equally upset with the delay, explained “[it] takes the energy out of the people.”

Their platforms? “Economic development—I think it’s a priority,” Loa said. “Number-one is the power plant,” said Thompson. “We need to bring more jobs to Palmdale,” demanded Duplechan.

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Emmett Murrell, said the “writing is on the wall” regarding a new look to Palmdale politics. “The ruling can help force implementation of a more fair election system,” he said. “In time, we will likely have a Latino councilmember or mayor. I don’t care if that’s the case … it’s better than what we’ve got.”

Several other cities in California may face lawsuits over the at-large election process. Activists in Modesto, Compton, Anaheim, Escondido and Whittier have gone to court in recent years seeking to have their council members elected by geographic districts. In order for this to happen, a plaintiff simply has to demonstrate that racially polarized voting exists; this is revealed primarily with election results that show despite having predominantly minority voting precincts, minorities are not getting voted into office in those areas.

Across the state, many community college and other school districts are making the switch. California’s counties and most of its largest cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach, elect council members by geographic district. Advocates believe district voting, allows for better accountability and less balkanization.

Whittier, which is 66 percent Latino, was sued last month by activists who said they had tried for years unsuccessfully to get representation on that council. A special election is set for June 2014 to allow voters to decide if they want to switch to district voting; activists have decried that decision as a delaying tactic that would maintain the status quo in Whittier until after the April city council election.

Doug Johnson, a professor at Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government, commented at a U.C. San Diego symposium this summer that cities still engaged in at-large voting should be looking over their shoulders. “It’s just a matter of time before these lawsuits spread across the state,” Johnson said. “The law is written in such a way that many cities are vulnerable, so they should be looking into it.”

Paul Mitchell, owner of Redistricting Partners (a provider of voter information to political campaigns and pollsters), supports Johnson’s claims, stating this summer that every city with a significant Latino population should study their demographics and voting patterns, and also must look at how Latinos have fared in local elections. Mitchell cited Escondido—which has a large Latino population—as a city vulnerable to a lawsuit. “[It] has a Latino downtown core that’s never elected anyone,” Mitchell explained. “So you have geographic dispersion and the White area of town has been outvoting the Latino area.”

The City of Chula Vista reportedly will switch to district voting by 2016, in part to avoid a lawsuit. San Diego County has three cities—San Marcos, El Cajon and Imperial Beach—with all-White city councils, despite large Latino populations (San Marcos is 37 percent Latino, El Cajon at 28 percent and Imperial Beach with a sizable 49 percent Latino residents).

In constrast to the comments by Posten and Barcelona about Palmdale’s working with its minority residents, racial controversy at both Palmdale and Lancaster city halls has also touched on profiling conducted by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, housing authority investigators and some local politicians. According to a federal lawsuit filed in June, some officials in both municipalities have systematically harassed families receiving Section 8 housing vouchers. “City officials have gone so far as to declare ‘war’ on Black and Latino families,” said Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel. “Fifty years after courts outlawed racial segregation, Lancaster and Palmdale have turned back the clock, turning neighbor against neighbor in the process. They should be building one community, not tearing it apart.”

The at-large system is said to violate the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), because it supposedly dilutes the chances of minority voters to elect their preferred candidates. Judge Mooney had ordered Palmdale to switch to a “by-district” system in the future, a process said to provide a greater chance of a minority to win office because he/she can court votes from persons in a select part of the community. At-large systems are those in which each member of the council is elected by all voters across the entire jurisdiction. In this case, the entire city of Palmdale. Also, the at-large system is said to be more common in affluent, racially homogeneous communities.

In short, this election method means that council persons are elected citywide, instead of in smaller districts that could allow, for example, Latinos, to elect a neighborhood leader reflecting their specific needs.

District systems are common in larger, urban areas with racial diversity. These office holders are often elected by large tallies of voters in a particular geographical section of the jurisdiction. Finally, district systems are more common in cities with strong mayor systems (usually big cities); at-large systems are more frequent in smaller towns with council-manager type systems.

The injunction was brought forth because the complaint alleged that the “current absence” of any Latinos or African Americans on the Palmdale city council reveals a “lack of access” to the political process, and further noted specifically that the upcoming November election, regardless of the current slate of candidates, is only a temporary relief and not a permanent one.

The California Department of Justice has found that, to date, no local government has won a state voting-rights lawsuit; a provision within the CVRA states that if a lawsuit is brought forth—and if a jurisdiction cannot demonstrate fair treatment of minorities in an at-large election—it must pay plaintiff’s court fees. With the lawsuit going forward—and no word yet when Palmdale will switch to a district election—the city council voted Oct. 1 to approve a five-year contract with a San Rafael law firm to help the city appeal the preliminary injunction.

Still, the working relationship between the Palmdale council and Black organizations is reportedly a positive one, says the Antelope Valley Black Chamber of Commerce. “They are attentive to our needs,” said chamber president Rich Poston. He cited one instance at a council meeting were Mayor Jim Ledford headed the effort to hire locally instead of calling on an outside vendor. “We had an issue where the council wanted to hire a tree trimming company from Orange County,” Poston explained. “I told the council that we have at least 13 tree trimming services in the area—many of which are minority owned—and we worked together to hire locally. This is real outreach to the minority community; we established an ordinance giving preference to Palmdale businesses.”

Poston decried the “outside” opinion of Palmdale politics and believes misunderstanding of the dynamics within the city has helped make the election controversy national news. “Sure, I’d like to see a minority on the council, but I don’t think it matters so much what color you are, as much as how well your company can serve Palmdale. People on the outside should look more closely at Palmdale government before they make a hasty judgment.”

Isaac Barcelona, president of the Hispanic chamber, agrees with Poston adding that the chamber does not look at the all-White council as a hindrance to Latino upward mobility, but sees it as an active partner serving the needs of the region. “[Council] has a history of doing what is best for our community as a whole, which is what they are elected to do.”

Four of the eight candidates seeking election next month for mayor and city council are minorities: three African Americans and one Latino. Prior to the injunction, at least one open council seat—if not both—has a high potential for being filled by a minority.

This was the sticking point in the controversy: even with court oversight of the election, how does the present at-large system provide a pathway for a minority victory?

According to Palmdale City Attorney Matthew Ditzhazy, the Court of Appeals “is prepared to decide the certification issue on a priority basis.” The CVRA applies equally to both general law cities and charter cities; the dilution of minority voting rights is considered a statewide concern, as well as a contentious national issue with the recent U.S. Supreme Court rollback of some measures of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“For far too long already, the African American and Latino citizens of Palmdale have been disenfranchised,” Parris told the Los Angeles Times early last month. “No longer should they be forced to wait for their rights while the city thumbs its nose at the law.”

Lancaster also uses an at-large system and has had a two-term African American Mayor in Henry Hearns.