Editorial: Threatened legal action is opportunity for better representation


The city of Menlo Park is the latest local jurisdiction to be threatened with litigation over its at-large election of governing-body members. On Aug. 21, the city received a warning letter from a Southern California law firm that has successfully sued or threatened to sue a number of municipalities and school districts in the state that held at-large elections, which allow every voter to vote for any candidate on the ballot. The letter argued that Menlo Park's City Council elections result in "racially polarized voting," in violation of the California Voting Rights Act, and urged the city to move from at-large to district elections, or face legal action.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman, who wrote the letter, told the Almanac that in shaping the complaint he had been working with residents of the Belle Haven neighborhood, the area of the city east of U.S.-101 that has a lower-wealth, large-minority population.

It is the lack of representation on the City Council by a Belle Haven resident that drives the legal threat: Citing recent data showing that about 60 percent of Belle Haven residents are Latino, and about 29 percent are African American, Mr. Shenkman asserts that the city's "at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos and African Americans ... to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Menlo Park's council elections."

Since incorporation, only one Belle Haven resident -- Billy Ray White, who was elected in 1978 and served through the mid-1980s -- has been elected to the council.

A threat of litigation may not create the best environment for making public policy. But we believe the city should consider this legal challenge an opportunity to create an effective district-based election system that could broaden City Council representation of residents citywide.

This is not an indictment of current council members, who regularly demonstrate a commitment to address concerns of the Belle Haven community. But it's difficult for anyone to understand from the outside the daily concerns typical of those who struggle to provide for themselves and their families while working in low-wage jobs -- sometimes several of them. And to understand life in a community where, compared with what's available to their fellow residents on the other side of the freeway, the schools are shamefully inadequate and neighborhood services such as library and recreation don't measure up.

The city has 45 days from the time it received the letter to indicate whether it "would like to discuss a voluntary change to (its) current at-large system," Mr. Shenkman writes. It's unknown whether the City Council has begun to discuss the threatened litigation in closed session, but that's the normal course of action when such a threat is made. We hope that the decision taken by the council will lead to a robust public discussion of how the city can be divided fairly and effectively into five or more districts, in which only residents of the individual districts can vote for their representative.

Similar legal threats have led to the elimination of at-large elections for seats on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and the Sequoia Union High School District. In the name of broader representation on their City Council, the residents and leaders of Menlo Park can create an election system that will benefit the entire city.

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6 people like this
Posted by Bob Richard
a resident of another community
on Sep 7, 2017 at 8:32 am

This story is unfolding in literally dozens of California cities and school districts. In every case, reporters and editorial writers present only two options -- at large elections, which are unfair to ethnic and other minorities, and single-member districts, under which council and board members represent plots of ground rather than people. But there is a third option, which offers fair representation to every sizable group in the community, including but not limited to ethnic minorities. That option is ranked choice voting (RCV) in multi-member districts. I encouraged concerned citizens in Menlo Park to contact the city of Santa Clara's charter review committee and city council, who are actively pursuing the RCV option. Also contact Californians for Electoral Reform ( for more information.

Like this comment
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of another community
on Sep 7, 2017 at 12:43 pm

Here is another piece of the puzzle.

“Facebook executives and a New York developer are hoping that their major development projects could get built years sooner than planned under last-minute legislation at the state Capitol.” San Diego Union Sept 7 2017

Web Link

8 people like this
Posted by why
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Sep 7, 2017 at 1:06 pm

Menlo Park will have district elections. Why should a council member from Sharon Heights care about Ravenswood schools or Dumbarton traffic? Why should a council member from Belle Haven care about Las Lomitas schools or Sand Hill Road traffic?

6 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Sep 8, 2017 at 8:20 am


How about the fact it is part of the area they were elected to represent? By your logic why should the President care about anywhere but New York or Washington? Why should any member of congress care about anywhere outside of their state or district? If the type of people getting elected to any position only care about themselves and the neighborhood they live in then the problem lies with the people electing them as much as the politician.

5 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 9, 2017 at 9:08 am

While district elections would improve representation for Belle Haven, the mostly white City of Menlo Park management and senior-level staff needs more diversity. I've become convinced that the lack of diversity is a root-cause reason for why progress towards service equity in Belle Haven moves so slowly. The City should supply its ethnic/racial breakdown numbers and then fix what appears to be institutionalized racism in Menlo Park's City governing structures. Please see the article, "10 Ways to Practice Institutional Racism at your Non Profit" Web Link

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