The city of Menlo Park on Aug. 21 received a letter indicating the city should prepare to face legal action unless it voluntarily switches from at-large to district City Council elections, confirmed City Manager Alex McIntyre.
At-large elections give every voter the chance to vote for every candidate across the city, whereas district elections parcel the city into smaller districts and voters choose a candidate only from within their own district.
The letter was mailed Aug. 14 and comes from attorney Kevin Shenkman of the Malibu-based law firm Shenkman and Hughes, Mr. Shenkman confirmed in a phone call. Mr. Shenkman said he has been working with Belle Haven residents but would not say specifically whom he was working with.
Mr. Shenkman has filed a number of such lawsuits, including in Fremont, where he alleged that the city's at-large voting process results in "racially polarized" voting, a term he says refers to when majority residents have preferred candidates who differ from racial minorities' preferred candidates.
"As a result of the at-large election system," he said, "minority-preferred candidates usually lose."
He said the letter is similar to the one he sent to Fremont in February, noting that in Menlo Park, "we found that the most recent election in November of 2016 was particularly telling."
During that election, Belle Haven resident Cecilia Taylor, who is African American, ran for City Council but lost to two incumbent council members, Catherine Carlton and Ray Mueller, who live west of El Camino Real and are Caucasian.
Ms. Taylor did well in Belle Haven, where there is a higher percentage of residents who identify as black or Latino, but lost by a "considerable margin" citywide, he said. Other past elections are discussed in the letter as well, he added.
Because of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, he says, there are lower requirements for voters to prove in a lawsuit that a city's at-large voting process creates racially polarized voting.
Mr. Shenkman says of his firm's track record in getting cities to move to district elections: "We're batting one thousand."
Ms. Taylor said that she knows about the letter, but declined to comment further on her role in its creation. She said a group of Menlo Park residents from across the city were involved.
Mr. Shenkman has sent such letters to other California cities, mainly in Southern California but also a growing number in Northern California, he says.
His Fremont letter says that at-large elections "allow a bare majority of voters to control every seat," and that minority groups are less able to elect their preferred candidates or influence election results.
Having council members of different races and socioeconomic statuses brings different interests to the dais, he said. A representative from a wealthier side of town may be more interested in fixing potholes than a representative from a less wealthy part of town who cares more about public transportation opportunities, he offered as an example.
After the City Council receives the letter, Mr. Shenkman said, the council will have 45 days to decide whether to pass a resolution declaring its intent to switch to district elections, or else prepare for a lawsuit.
If the council does pass a resolution, then it gets 90 days to develop a district map, host public meetings and decide how elections will move forward in the future.
If district elections are ahead for Menlo Park, the current council might be shaken up Councilwoman Catherine Carlton lives in Sharon Heights; council members Rich Cline, Peter Ohtaki and Ray Mueller live between Sharon Heights and El Camino Real; and current Mayor Kirsten Keith lives in the Willows neighborhood. None of the current council members lives east of U.S. 101, where Belle Haven, which has a less-affluent population and more minority residents than the city west of the freeway, and several new large apartment complexes are located.
When asked how gerrymandering might be prevented, he said, "The law says how districts are supposed to be drawn. ... From what I've seen in northern California and Menlo Park is a pretty good example you have a pretty engaged electorate. When officials start screwing around in self-interest, that undermines democracy. Hopefully people call them on it."