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Redwood City intends to transition to district-based elections

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In response to the threat of costly legal action, the Redwood City council on Monday unanimously announced its intent to transition from an at-large elections system to a district-based elections system.

As first reported last month by Climate Magazine columnist Mark Simon, Redwood City recently joined a long list of state jurisdictions in receiving a letter from the law firm Shenkman & Hughes alleging that its current system of at-large elections discriminates against minority voters and candidates.

While at-large elections allow voters of the entire city to elect the seven councilmembers, a district-based system has voters voting solely for the councilmember who resides in and aims to represent their particular district of the city.

In the letter to Redwood City officials, Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman said the at-large system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001. His letter threatened litigation if Redwood City did not voluntarily switch to district-based elections.

In its report to council, Redwood City staff did not defend the at-large election system. Rather, staff advised that challenging the legal threat would likely be costly and unsuccessful.

According to a staff report, “the threshold to establish liability under the CVRA is extremely low, and prevailing CVRA plaintiffs are guaranteed to recover their attorneys’ fees and costs. As a result, every governmental defendant that has challenged the conversion to by-district elections under the CVRA has either lost in court or settled/agreed to change its election system and been forced to pay at least some portion of the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs.”

When the City of Palmdale attempted to defend its at-large council election system in court, it was forced to pay $4.7 million in plaintiff’s legal fees, not counting nearly $2 million in legal defense fees. Santa Barbara, Whittier, Anaheim and Modesto incurred legal fees of between $600,000 and $3 million in settling such challenges, staff said.

“All of these cases ended with those cities adopting by-district elections,” the staff report says.

Locally, seven jurisdictions have either chosen to adopt district elections or are preparing to do so, including Half Moon Bay, Menlo Park, South San Francisco, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and two local school districts. Santa Clara was court-ordered to implement district elections even though voters in the city rejected such a system in June.

Proposals by Redwood City staff include reducing council seats from seven to six under a district-based elections system, with the mayor’s position elected in at-large system. Other alternatives include red “ranked choice voting,” “cumulative voting” and “from district” elections formats, according to the staff report.

Should council approve the transition to district elections, public hearings will be held to seek input on drafting district maps. The conversion to district elections is expected to cost Redwood City about $175,000.