News

Menlo Park: Move to district elections or face lawsuit, law firm says

 

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.

Other cities

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.

What's next

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."

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Comments

52 people like this
Posted by Conscience
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm

Maybe the reason Ms. Taylor didn't win the election to City Council is because she jumped into the race late and has no proven track-record (e.g., hasn't served on a City Commission) and she was running against two incumbent Council Members who have established records of achievement, serving on City Commissions and on the City Council. That said, I think the Council should look at "district" elections. However, given the "geography" of Menlo Park, it's hard to see how each new district would be representative of the population of Menlo Park as a whole.


36 people like this
Posted by Why not!
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Aug 17, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Is it possible to have a better representation by having a 7 member council with 4 district and 3 at-large members? That the current council has used Belle Haven as a source property tax revenue but the area has no power on the council seems wrong. The west side makes decisions for Belle Haven and there should be a council member representing that area. There's no guarantee that this will change the direction this city is taking, but it's a start.


29 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 17, 2017 at 1:04 pm

To Conscience
"Ms. Taylor didn't win the election to City Council is because she jumped into the race late and has no proven track-record (e.g., hasn't served on a City Commission) and she was running against two incumbent Council Members who have established records of achievement, serving on City Commissions and on the City Council."

Ms. Taylor did pretty damned good for not meeting your criteria.
Ray Mueller 8,231 36.3%
Catherine Carlton 7,555 33.4%
CECILIA T. TAYLOR 6,863 30.3%


18 people like this
Posted by questionable
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 17, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Kate Bradshaw writes, "Ms. Taylor did well among Latinos and African Americans in Belle Haven..."

There is no way to know how various ethnic groups voted. This kind of information is generally gathered through polling, which has not been done here. Bradshaw may intend, "Ms. Taylor did well in the Belle Haven region, which has a higher percentage of Latinos and African Americans than other parts of Menlo Park." Even this statement is questionable. The Almanac should publish their data indicating that Taylor received more votes from Latinos that the other candidate.


12 people like this
Posted by Stu Soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 17, 2017 at 1:55 pm

First, I invite you to see the map of Menlo Park I posted last October, with pointers to where our council members live, ably illustrating the lopsided distribution. A compelling story, but I'm not sure changing to districts assures any better candidates or decision makers.

Web Link

Second, occasionally the city gets lawsuits with odd merit, by people looking for a settlement. Such as the housing advocates. The councils spend a lot of time wringing their hands, play softball and write checks. Reminds me of patent trolls.


13 people like this
Posted by Facebook Feed
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 17, 2017 at 4:27 pm

All one need do is look at Mayor Keith's Facebook page to see pictures of her and Councilmember Catherine Carlton hob nobbing with other politicians at Facebook today - while the latest Facebook development project is pending - to understand why the City needs to visit this issue.


10 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 17, 2017 at 5:21 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

With district elections and all the newFacebook housing any Eastern district would probably be dominated by Facebook employees.


25 people like this
Posted by Jenson
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 18, 2017 at 12:18 am

Having 4 of our 5 council members living on the west side of town is not good for the city as a whole. We need representation from all areas of the city and this hopefully will resonate with voters next time. Traffic and uncontrolled expansion of business has choked the city streets and produced many unsafe intersections for our pedestrians. Council members who never have to go past El Camino on a regular basis don't care about stop and go traffic on El Camino or the constant flow of commuter traffic through neighborhoods along the Willow Road corridor. Living in the sheltered areas south of Santa Cruz Ave and west of Olive bring a lack of interest and solutions by these 4 council members to a number of city WIDE concerns. It would be refreshing to have candidates who don't fall all over themselves when they see the word "Facebook" on the agenda. I hope Ms Tylor decides to run again because I will vote for her. At large elections are needed in Menlo Park.


23 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 18, 2017 at 10:14 am

It's pretty obvious that the needs and concerns of Belle Haven are very different from the rest of the city. It's largely working class, with a lot of minorities, facing most of the developmental pressures of the city. If I understand it correctly, it has been a very long time since a neighborhood member was present on city council. Having some sort of district-based representation seems appropriate.


18 people like this
Posted by Peter F Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 18, 2017 at 10:28 am

If the Belle Haven residents picked a single candidate and only voted for that one candidate they could easily take a council seat.


13 people like this
Posted by George Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 18, 2017 at 11:43 am

"I'm not sure changing to districts assures any better candidates or decision makers." Maybe, maybe not, but would increase attention to specific district issues, and increase likelihood specific district issues would be addressed. .


26 people like this
Posted by Mper
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Aug 18, 2017 at 12:05 pm

i don't live in Belle Haven, I've met Ms. Taylor and I would easily vote for her again. Those of us who live anywhere near 101 have been absolutely pounded by traffic congestion as a result of our city's deal making. The final affront- Connect Menlo -- Caltrain reducing the 4 leaf clover at Willow/101 to a two-leaf clover. Think - the university exchange, only with all of the dunbarton bridge , FB and other through traffic making our residential streets impassable and 101 inaccessible during commuting times. Now we won't be able to get on OR off 101 at willow without being forced into the mix of through traffic on and off 101. What about this move helps residents? our Mayor lives in the Willows. They are having a terrible time with through traffic as well. As a result of a meeting she held in the Willows a couple of months back, the Willows will be the only part of our area to be officially represented on council and commissions for traffic mitigation. No representation- no mitigation. And it's not just Belle Haven. Think - your neighbors on or near Suburban Park, lorelei manor, flood park triangle and more. Anyone anywhere near Willow/101, or FB. Its difficult to imagine any substantial mitigation for the Willows that won't impact all of the communities In the corridor. Now, if you commute on 280...life is grand and you're probably blissfully unaware of what's happening over here. Don't even get me started on the still-at-grade rail crossings, deteriorating side walks and lack of crossing lights at the five-way intersection at Ringwood and Bay! We're all residents. We all pay taxes. We all need representation.


7 people like this
Posted by Look that way
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 18, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Mayor Keith actually has delayed traffic improvements in the Willows. She pushed them off into a longer planning process, but held a meeting to say she was doing something about it. She isn't affected by the cut though on her Cul-de-Sac..


10 people like this
Posted by Seriously
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 18, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Menlo Park would probably benefit from district elections, given its diversity and lack of equal representation across that diversity, but the system that would REALLY benefit from district elections is the Menlo Park Fire District. How many directors of the most cash rich fire district in the state have come from East Palo Alto?


6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 18, 2017 at 12:48 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"How many directors of the most cash rich fire district in the state have come from East Palo Alto?"

Steve Kennedy was a Director who resided in East Palo Alto.

With Director Ianson's resignation the Fire Board will have 1 Director from the unincorporated area of the District, 1 Director from Atherton and 2 from Menlo Park.


5 people like this
Posted by henry fox
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 18, 2017 at 2:30 pm

Should districts be based on ethnicity? religion? number of registered voters? number of citizens as opposed to population?
Big questions.


6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 18, 2017 at 2:49 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I believe that in California any subdivision of a publicly elected body must be done to provide approximately the same number of registered voters in each proposed district.

Determining the size/shape of those districts is otherwise a discretionary action by the elected body however district boundaries that suggest manipulation to provide a specific misrepresentation are often challenged in the courts.


5 people like this
Posted by Down let the lawyers push us around
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 18, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Menlo Park is a small town. Its population is only about 30,000. I don't think it is appropriate for some out of town law firm telling us how to run our town. The City Council should either make up its own mind what to do or put it on the ballot for the residents of Menlo Park to decide. But under no circumstances should it cave in to some Law firm nearly 500 miles away.


1 person likes this
Posted by Mper
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Aug 18, 2017 at 3:12 pm

With all do respect 'Look That Way'
Everything between the Willow exits/entrances has been mowed over and plowed up to oblivion- so if things are on hold now, there is little between us and the completion of that effort should it be allowed to proceed. Ms Keith doesn't have to be personally impacted to need to respond to voters in her neighborhood... she has to live there. There is one temporary silver lining to this project. Ever since they closed Bay Rd at Willow a~6 weeks ago and posted detour signs all around that say something like 'no through traffic' or 'local traffic only' our area feels a little like the old days...3 years ago when we could still drive down the street at rush hour..accept for the part where we have to serpentine through our neighbors streets to get on or off 101/Willow. Making those signs permanent would be a slice of heaven!


10 people like this
Posted by Menlo Park Social Justice Coalition
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 21, 2017 at 9:29 am

We are not here to discuss all the reasons why Mrs. Taylor did not win the election because despite the outcome she did a fantastic job. We appreciate her efforts as she continues to be a strong movement in the community, and that counts for a whole lot more than what the incumbents have done for the Belle Haven Community since their tenure.

Belle Haven has been racially polarized my whole life and we are suffering as a result of, having no access to the resources that the rest of the city takes full advantage of. We know nothing about these achievements people speak of because they have not improved anything on the East side of the 101, and that is why there is a serious need for making this happen. By allowing district elections it will definitely give us better representation, because we have yet to be heard as the city continues to get bombarded by Facebook and all its' intrusive "improvements".

WE WANT A VOICE!!!

Respectfully,

Menlo Park Social Justice Coalition Member


2 people like this
Posted by numbers
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 21, 2017 at 12:45 pm

In 2016, the City of Menlo Park had a population of 33,888 with 18,783 registered voters (55%). If this population were split up into five equal parts, each district would have approximately, 6,777 residents with around 3,757 registered voters.

​The elementary school districts play a role here, although each of the three districts contain residents from other cities (Portola Valley, Atherton, East Palo Alto and unincorporated San Mateo County). In 2016, the Menlo Park City School District contained 13,633 registered City of Menlo Park voters (73% of city voters), Las Lomitas contained 2,717 registered City of Menlo Park voters (14% of city voters), and Ravenswood contained 2,433 registered City of Menlo Park voters (13% of city voters).

With so much high-density housing being developed near Facebook, a proposed city district including just Ravenswood could grow to be closer to 20% of City of Menlo Park voters, but a new city council district may need to also include Flood Triangle to approach 20% of the city population. A city council district representing just Las Lomitas may need to include a few thousand more people from West Menlo to approach 20% of the City of Menlo Park population. Both Mueller and Carlton currently live in Las Lomitas Elementary School District.


5 people like this
Posted by School District Elections
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 21, 2017 at 1:06 pm

School districts have no relationship to City Council elections. They are separately run elections with separately drawn jurisdictional lines.


4 people like this
Posted by numbers
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 21, 2017 at 2:10 pm

@School_District_Elections writes, "School districts have no relationship to City Council elections."

The 2016 city council race referenced in this article included two candidates from the affluent Las Lomitas Elementary School District and one candidate from the less-affluent Ravenswood Elementary School District.

Kate_Bradshaw writes, "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."

The elementary school districts dramatically influence property values, creating the disparity described in this article.


4 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 21, 2017 at 4:57 pm

@numbers

Districts will be apportioned by population rather than by voter registration. Poorer areas tend to have lower registration. Based on that, I suspect Menlo Park east of 101 already has enough people for its own district.


2 people like this
Posted by Development pressures
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 21, 2017 at 9:35 pm

Is the goal to change the districting fast enough to prevent all those Facebook employees from moving in? If not, they might have a very different opinion of what appropriate suburban scale looks like, being apartment dwellers themselves.


2 people like this
Posted by Pot meet Kettle
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 22, 2017 at 9:42 am

*EXTREMELY BROAD* overview of the legal underpinnings of the potential lawsuit:
California Voting Rights Act and federal Voting Rights Act require that any districts would have to be roughly equally-sized in population , and must also not dilute the voting power of minority voters (generally defined as both racial and/or language minorities). The districts would also have to be re-evaluated after every census to account for demographic changes in the electorate.

HOT TAKE:
Having a council member from Belle Haven certainly would seem like progress, but it is only 1 seat out 5 on the City Council. Maybe 2 seats someday, depending on how much that part of town grows. But the problem of a majority of the council kowtowing to Facebook's every whim would remain.


6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 22, 2017 at 10:12 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When the new housing East of 101 is added to the mix the residents of Belle Haven would no longer have "control" over a "district" Council seat.

A much better and quicker strategy for Belle Haven is to get well organized behind a single candidate and then only vote for that one candidate. I suspect that many MP voters from West of 101 would also cast one of their votes for a well qualified and well supported Belle Haven candidate thus ensuring a win.


11 people like this
Posted by Pot meet Kettle
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 22, 2017 at 11:25 am

@Peter Carpenter

The purpose of establishing districts is to institutionalize the power of the individual vote (i.e. choice) in choosing our elected officials. The residents of Belle Haven (or the Willows, or West Menlo, etc.) would have the ability to select someone to represent the specific interests of that district. Your strategy of getting "well organized behind a single candidate and then only voting for that candidate" is completely at odds with that purpose.

It is also condescending, in that it presumes (1) the residents of Belle Haven are not organized and (2) the residents in Belle Haven are a voting monolith.


3 people like this
Posted by Scoreboard
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 22, 2017 at 8:34 pm

I was initially excited about Cecilia Taylor's candidacy in 2016, but the problem was she was anything but a fresh voice. The majority of her support came from the Steve Schmidt/Jack Morris "I got mine" crew that acts like Menlo Park attained perfection the moment they themselves purchased property here.

If someone from Belle Haven (or anywhere in Menlo Park) wants to come up with a new innovative strategy to lift all boats, I'll vote for them whether it's citywide or in a district! But that wasn't Cecilia.


5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 22, 2017 at 8:41 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Pot - Do the numbers. With all the new apartments East of 101 the Belle Haven residents will be a minority of the East of 101 population. And the new apartment dwellers will have little affinity with the existing Belle haven residents.

As for Belle Haven's lack of cohesion - how many showed up tonight to protest the Council's blatant disregard for the need for a real Belle haven library?


17 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 22, 2017 at 9:41 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Pot - I have been the winner and highest vote getter in three elections and backed winning candidates in two others?


What is your record?


8 people like this
Posted by Pot meet Kettle
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 23, 2017 at 10:53 am

@Peter Carpenter

I am undefeated in the Almanac comments section.


4 people like this
Posted by Row Row Your Boat
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Aug 23, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Scoreboard: Which "boats" are you referencing? In today's "boats" are thousands of new office workers who want to live in Menlo Park. Will Linfield Oaks make room for these people? The draw bridge stance Linfield has taken for many years has been documented. It fought the sweet development on Laurel St across from Burgess pool. It fought the housing development on Willow next to Sunset magazine. It fought the housing development on Linfield Drive. It fought a bike tunnel under the train tracks at Willow and Alma, worried it would bring bicyclists riding through its streets. It fought almost every improvement to Burgess Park claiming it would bring regional users and more traffic.

Today's issues are complex and opposition to change is the foundation of just about every problem. District elections won't mean much when the city reaches population growth to 50,000 as projected in the General Plan. Belle Haven won't exist as it does today. The Facebook housing will tip the scale and whatever minorities that live there now will be overpowered by new residents, people of different racial makeups.

This threat of a lawsuit comes too late to turn back the clock. Thanks to our City Council, we are on a trajectory that will change Menlo Park from a suburb to an urban area. Linfield Oaks is caught in a time warp and any lofty comments about boats being lifted rings hallow. Taylor would have been a fresh voice as she would have had first hand experience as to what it's like to live in an area the City is using to fill its general fund. She has my vote if she runs again.


9 people like this
Posted by Hyperbole
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 23, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Linfield did this, Linfield did that -- you'd think we were an organized union instead of a bunch of people who happen to live in the same geographical area. Most of us don't even know other residents other than our immediate neighbors and we did not live here when some of these "battles" occurred. And I defy anyone to produce a single bit of proof that a resident complained about bicycles in the street, or improvements to Burgess Park. We benefit the most from improvements to Burgess! And I guess that drawbridge isn't working very well since we get more cut-through traffic than any other neighborhood.

But, hey, let's just make stuff up and pretend it's true!

Then there's the refusal to support a great candidate because she's also supported by long-time residents, including former council members. Stunning lack of logic there. How about some respect for the views of those who have invested a lot of time and money in this community? And, while you're at it, judge candidates on their own merits?


4 people like this
Posted by maximusgolden
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2017 at 12:26 pm

It is offensive to conclude that creating voting districts so that East of 101 will have representation is a bad idea because new apartments diminish the racial or economic homogeneity of the area.

There are many East Menlo issues which are neighborhood oriented rather than racial or income specific.

Newer "apartment dwelling" East Menlo residents may also advocate Belle Haven library improvements.


11 people like this
Posted by Dawn
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 25, 2017 at 12:44 pm

I support having some form of district elections. Just reading through the comment thread here makes it clear to me that people make assumptions about the Belle Haven community that just aren't true. One has to live on our island to understand the issues facing us. That is not to say that other portions of the city don't have their own unique concerns - hence the district elections. I also agree with the poster who suggested a couple of at-large positions because I don't want to see council fall into immovable district perspectives.

And I am not sure I understand how "Belle Haven residents will be a minority of the East of 101 population" in their own community. There aren't BH residents and newcomers. They are all BH residents. And like other parts of Menlo Park with renters and homeowners in close proximity, we will work it out. Traffic is a universal irritation. New residents will help the cry for improved city services in the Belle Haven neighborhood.

And for goodness sake, folks. Please pull out your google maps and sort out once and for all that Belle Haven is not east Menlo Park. It is the northernmost neighborhood of our town no mater how many times you insist on labeling it as east. I get the complication with a north/south freeway dividing us, but I've always assumed MP to be a smarter than average community and I imagine we can begin using more accurate descriptions. It's the right thing to do.


3 people like this
Posted by Dawn
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 25, 2017 at 1:23 pm

And, while I agree that voting for only one candidate can increase their chances, it certainly shouldn't be the official answer to trying to get a voice on the council. It's a bit condescending to suggest that in order to have a voice, they should give up 2/3 of their choices. IMHO. I sense a subtle implication that a reduced percentage of "minorities" in the neighborhood change the overall concerns of the neighborhood. Spend some time driving around there between 4 and 6. You can't just run to the full service grocery store - it would take you almost an hour many afternoons. Those issues affect everyone, so please stop suggesting that a districting system would somehow mute the complaints of the people who live in BH now.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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