Almanac

News - February 27, 2013

Supes settle suit, may redraw district lines

by Dave Boyce

San Mateo County voters last November brought an end to the practice of having candidates for county supervisor run county-wide instead of in their districts alone. Now, in settling a 2011 lawsuit brought by six people — three of Asian ethnicity and three of Latino — over complaints of racial discrimination in elections to the Board of Supervisors, the board has agreed to consider redrawing the five district boundaries.

"While the Board of Supervisors firmly believes that the existing system of elections was fair and protected the rights of all voters in the County, those voters expressed a clear preference for district elections through Measure B," county spokesman Marshall Wilson said in a Feb. 20 statement. "Given the change in the law, it no longer made sense to defend the prior system. Resolving the lawsuit thus allows the County to focus its efforts on developing the district-based system chosen by the voters in a sensible manner that protects the right of all citizens to vote."

A nine-member citizens committee, with members vetted by the League of Women Voters and approved by the board, will hold public meetings around the county in coming months to "receive community input as to where the boundaries of each district should be placed," Mr. Wilson said.

The committee, working with professionals familiar with redrawing district lines, will make recommendations to "ensure that the integrity of neighborhoods and communities of interests are protected," the statement said.

District boundaries were redrawn after the 2010 census. If they are to be redrawn again, the supervisors would decide that on Oct. 8, 2013, and the changes would be in place for the June 2014 elections.

The defendants — the five supervisors and Mark Church, the county's chief elections officer — agreed that the county would pay, in round figures, $650,000 in plaintiffs' attorneys fees, along with $400,000 to Kerr & Wagstaffe and $100,000 to the county counsel's office for legal services, Mr. Wilson said.

Polarized elections?

The lawsuit, led in part by attorney Robert Rubin of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, alleged racially polarized voting that left the Asian and Latino communities "routinely ignored and marginalized by the majority."

People in those two communities make up about 50 percent of the county's population but since 1995, no Asians and just one Latino have served as supervisor, the complaint says.

The plaintiffs asked for an end to at-large (countywide) voting and a remedy to violations of state and federal voting rights laws. Voters' approval of Measure B took care of the first issue; a study of whether to redraw boundaries is intended to address the second.

The defense argued that at-large voting was justified under "home rule," a concept that allows a charter county — San Mateo County is one of 13 in the state — freedom to craft its own laws. "They argued that they could ignore state (and federal) law. We felt that an issue like discrimination against minority voters was a sufficiently compelling interest (to justify suing)," Mr. Rubin said. "A home-rule charter county doesn't trump state law."

Asked to comment, attorney Michael von Lowenfeldt, who helped defend the supervisors, said he remains unconvinced, adding that laws governing charter counties predate the California Voting Rights Act. This case, he said, was about at-large voting, not voter disempowerment, and had been rendered all but moot by Measure B. As for redrawn districts, "All we've agreed to is to analyze the issue," he said. "That may or may not affect where the lines would be. There will be more public comment this time around. More comment is usually better."

The board "did insist on retaining its power" to approve the ad hoc committee membership and new district boundaries, Mr. Rubin said, but added: "We're confident they will listen to the committee and our consultants and approve (new) lines. ... Section 2 of the California Voting Rights Act, we think, is a sufficient check on any shenanigans."

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