In response to a lawsuit threat alleging that Menlo Park's voting system does not give fair council representation to Latino and black voters in the city's Belle Haven neighborhood, Menlo Park's City Council took unanimous action Oct. 4 to pass a resolution declaring its intent to change election systems – and, in the words of Councilman Peter Ohtaki, to embark on a process to figure out how best to do so.
One of those systems is to hold council elections by districts instead of city-wide (known as at-large voting).
Belle Haven, which is predominantly Latino and black, hasn't had an elected council representative for about 30 years, residents say. The last councilman from the neighborhood was Billy Ray White, an African American man who had at least two unsuccessful council runs before serving two consecutive terms between 1978 and 1986, according to a staff report. Others who were of a racial minority have been elected to the council more recently, but were not from Belle Haven.
The city currently uses an "at-large" voting system, in which all voters can pick among all candidates city-wide. The city received a letter in August from Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes, a Malibu-based law firm, alleging the city's at-large system creates "racially polarized voting" – when constituents of different races have different voting preferences, and minority-preferred candidates lose out on attaining representation.
The letter threatens a lawsuit if the city did not take action within a 45-day window to pass a resolution indicating its willingness to voluntarily change its election system to address racially polarized voting. The council vote, taken one day before the deadline to respond, also limits the city's liability to $30,000 against such legal threats.
Now, the council has another 90 days free from lawsuit liability, during which it must take further steps to expedite the transition to a new election system.
The council agreed to host two public meetings – on Monday, Oct. 30, and Wednesday, Nov. 29 – to get comment from the community on how best to restructure the voting system. Meeting times and locations have not been set, but the meeting will likely start around 7 p.m., Mayor Kirsten Keith said.
The council also agreed to pay up to $75,000 to hire a demographer from National Demographics Corp. to help with the process. California has established a process for converting election systems, since there are a lot of cities across the state facing similar legal threats right now, and none have been successful in defending at-large systems.
The next step for the city is to hold at least four public meetings within the next 90 days to talk about options for election systems and possible district boundaries. The other meetings are expected to be scheduled at a later date, and there may be a possibility for an extension, since those days are inclusive of the holidays.
The only way to ensure the city stays entirely safe from a suit – by the currently unnamed plaintiffs, or future plaintiffs – is to switch to a district system, which would divide the city into a number of districts in which residents of each district vote for a candidate to represent them.
Doing so would make it easier for residents in the Belle Haven neighborhood, who are more likely to be black and Latino/Latina compared to the rest of the city, to gain representation on the council.
One alternative to the city's current system, called a from-district election, requires that candidates must be from a given district in a city, but everyone in the city is allowed to vote. This would ensure that the council is represented by someone from all sectors of town, but could still result in racial polarization. For instance, a scenario could happen in which multiple candidates from Belle Haven were to run, and the candidate who's preferred by white-majority voters across the city wins over the one who's preferred by residents of the neighborhood.
Other election systems, such as ranked-choice or cumulative voting, exist, but can only be used in what are called "charter" cities, according to City Attorney Bill McClure. Those systems might still leave the city subject to a lawsuit.
Menlo Park is a "general law" city, which means that its constitution is more prescriptive as to how people must vote. One option is for the city to look into becoming a charter city, in order to allow an alternative voting system, Mr. McClure said.
By-district elections have their own drawbacks. One is that they may promote balkanization and division within the council, since each representative will only need to answer to the constituents of his or her district rather than the whole city, according to several people who spoke during the meeting's public comment period.
One way to mitigate this effect, Mr. McClure said, is to have an at-large mayor elected who is charged with representing residents' interests citywide. The city would also have to decide how many council members to have, whether it would be five, seven or nine elected by district, or four, six or eight with a mayor elected at large.