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.