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Arroyo Grande bends to the threat of litigation over its at-large election system 

Editor's note: This article was edited to clarify Michael Latner's comments on racial representation in district elections.

Despite concerns over its small population and geographic size and the reluctance of city leaders, Arroyo Grande will be the next San Luis Obispo County city to vote by district.

Arroyo Grande City Council voted unanimously on Oct. 22 to transition from an at-large to a district-based election system by November 2022, a process that will involve separating the city into four geographic regions where residents from each quarter will be able to elect one City Council member residing in their district. Under the current election system, all voters registered within city limits cast votes in the races for every council seat.

The city's decision is a response to a resident's threat to sue Arroyo Grande for potentially violating the California Voting Rights Act, a state law prohibiting at-large election systems that make it difficult for underserved demographics to elect candidates of their choice. While the California Voting Rights Act is intended to increase representation of minority groups on councils across the state, some say the law goes too far and makes it nearly impossible for cities to fight the incoming lawsuits.

"Many cities have tried to fight this," Mayor Caren Ray Russom told New Times, "especially cities like ours where there really isn't a demonstrated problem. But many courts have ruled that just because you can't see a problem doesn't mean it's not there."

And Arroyo Grande, Russom said, can't afford to risk litigation.

On Oct. 2, the city received a notice and report from attorney Robert Goodman, brought on behalf of Arroyo Grande resident Maria Minicucci, alleging that the city's at-large election system could violate the Voting Rights Act. Goodman and Minicucci threated to sue if the city refuses to transition to a district-based election system.

Through the law, plaintiffs need only prove the existence of "racially polarized voting" to establish liability, but, according to a city staff report, proof of intent on the part of voters or elected officials to discriminate against a specific group is not required. Since the Voting Rights Act was enacted, scores of California cities—including Paso Robles and Grover Beach—school districts, community college districts, and water or special districts have transitioned to the district system or are doing so.

"There's nothing we can do about this," Russom said. "It's been court tested. We're aware of no city that has fought this and won."

Instead of challenging Goodman and Minicucci's assertions, the city plans to enter into a settlement agreement that will involve a $31,211 payment for Minicucci's attorney fees, as required by law, and transitioning to a by-district election, a process the city estimates will cost another $25,000, according to the staff report.

Although Russom said there could be some benefits to the district election system—the small districts will make it easier and cheaper to canvass and campaign—she mostly sees downsides.

At the City Council meeting on Oct. 22, Russom called the situation "extortion," and shared her fears that Arroyo Grande's population and geographic size are too small for a district election system to work. Other council members agreed, and several noted that with Arroyo Grande's small population, it could be difficult to find candidates willing to run in each separate region, an issue that would then force City Council to appoint members to any vacant spots.

"When we first got this, I was really disturbed by it, and it really bothered me a lot because not one size fits all, and that's what I feel like this is," Councilmember Keith Storton said at the meeting. "It's just being canned and processed and sent to everybody with no real thought as to the care and compassion that we have as individuals who live here and are impacted by this—are affected by it."

For Michael Latner, a political science professor at Cal Poly and expert in voting rights, it's been sad to watch cities give up the fight against these lawsuits.

If a city can prove that its at-large system isn't causing racially polarized voting, or even just that it doesn't have a geographic concentration of a targeted demographic, which would make transitioning to a district election essentially pointless, Latner said that a city could win its case and keep its at-large election system or move to a better alternative.

But most aren't even trying, he said, out of fear. And in cities like Arroyo Grande, where Latner said there doesn't appear to be any real evidence of racially polarized voting or an area with a particularly high percentage of minority demographics, a district plan could actually lead to the opposite effect of its intent by further diluting the minority vote.

That's what's happening in most places, and Latner said fewer than half of the cities that have adopted district elections have actually improved racial representation. It's a powerful piece of legislation, but Latner said the goal is supposed to be to improve racial representation in positions of power, "not to line the pockets of attorneys." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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