The City of San Mateo appears headed toward a transition from an at-large system to a district-based system for electing its City Council members.
On Monday, city staff will recommend that City Council adopt a resolution to declare the City Council’s intention to transition from at-large to by-district elections, and to spend $150,000 for a demographer study and public outreach effort to determine district boundaries within the city.
The recommendation follows a letter sent to the city last month by attorney Scott J. Rafferty, who charged that San Mateo’s at-large system for electing City Council members, in which all city voters elect all five council members, violates the California Voters Rights Act by diluting the votes of minority citizens. The fairer system, according to Rafferty, is district-based, where residents vote only for the candidate who lives within their designated district of the city. A district-based system would enable voters in Latino neighborhoods to elect candidates who represent their interests, Rafferty said.
San Mateo would be the latest in a long list of cities that have transitioned to district-based elections under threat of legal action. No cities have successfully defended a CVRA lawsuit brought to mandate district-based elections, and entering litigation comes at a high cost.
“The threshold to establish liability under the CVRA is extremely low, and prevailing CVRA plaintiffs are guaranteed to recover their attorneys’ fees and costs,” according to San Mateo city staff. “With the exception of one case still being litigated, all public entities that have tried to contest the conversion to elections by district have either lost or have agreed to make the transition.”
If City Council votes Monday to begin the transition process, the city will be required to create and adopt a map with district boundaries within 90 days, although the city can negotiate for an extension. An extensive community engagement process will follow aiming to gather resident input on how the district map should be drawn.