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Alhambra Council Discusses Possible Legal Challenges to At-Large Voting System

Photo by Alhambra Source.


Alhambra , CA

The Alhambra City Council held a special meeting Thursday afternoon to consider how to respond to complaints alleging that the city’s at-large election process is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

The complaint in the council’s written agenda came in a certified letter from Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu-based attorney who, over much of the last decade, has either sued or threatened to sue cities if they did not change their manner of electing city council members.

Shenkman’s letter, dated April 30, said he was writing on behalf of his client, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which was founded in 1974 and is the largest and oldest non-partisan Latino voter participation organization. The other client was identified as the Grassroots Community Group of Alhambra. Members of the two group who reside in Alhambra are also listed as clients, but not named in the letter.

Shenkman’s letter alleges that the city’s “at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos… to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the City’s council elections.” 

He writes that “Alhambra’s election history is illustrative of the vote dilution caused by Alhambra’s at-large system.” The letter cites elections in 2012, 2008 and 2006 when Latino candidates lost despite receiving “significant” or “overwhelming” support from the Latino community.

He adds that this election history goes back to 2002 and 2004 when Latino candidates also “lost despite being preferred by the Latino electorate.”

“These elections evidence vote dilution which is directly attributable to the City’s unlawful at-large election system,” Shenkman’s letter states.

Shenkman’s firm has prevailed in voting rights challenges in Palmdale and, more recently, Santa Monica. In some of these cases, the cities have had to pay their own legal fees as well as the fees of the petitioners.

The city council was due to consider Shenkman’s letter and another unspecified matter in closed session but first, City Clerk Lauren Myles read more than 20 emailed comments, many lengthy and many seemingly angry, urging the council to voluntarily agree to change Alhambra’s voting procedures as requested by Shenkman. They also urged the council to give up any effort to counter a November ballot initiative sponsored by Grassroots Alhambra that called for district-by-district voting and campaign finance limits.

One of the emails read by Myles added another dimension to the question of the day. Scott Rafferty, who identified himself as an attorney, urged the city to quit its longtime at-large process. He said he represented an organization of Latino voters, “Neighborhood Elections Now,” and that he and his group were ready to find legal remedies if the city continued to disregard voting rights provisions. A quick Google search identified a Scott J. Rafferty as a Northern California attorney who has pressed cities, including Santa Clarita and Richmond, to change their at-large systems, citing not only the California Voting Rights Act but provisions of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A copy of Rafferty’s communication to the city, which apparently arrived May 6, was not included in the City Council’s agenda packet.

Before the council moved into closed session, City Attorney Joseph Montes asked that the Rafferty letter be added to the agenda for the confidential discussions. That request was approved on a 5-0 vote.

Montes also said there would be no comment on these matters at the end of Thursday’s closed session.

In 2018, Grassroots Alhambra began circulating petitions throughout the city to get an initiative on this November’s ballot for campaign finance reform, along with district-by-district voting. The petition got more than 8,500 signatures and more than enough were verified by the city clerk to have the measure qualify for the ballot.

At last week’s teleconferenced city council meeting, however, the council voted 3-2, on a motion from Council Member Jeff Maloney, to direct city staff to craft language for an alternate measure that would impose campaign finance reform while keeping the current system of at-large voting in place.

Proponents of the Grassroots-backed initiative were angry with the vote, alleging the council was trying to distract the city’s voters from an initiative that had received the equivalent of 20% of registered voter support in the petition process.

Opponents of the measure were equally displeased at having the measure on the ballot and have maintained for some time that district-by-district voting disenfranchises them and dilutes the power of their vote on issues that concern all of Alhambra.

Some also said that only the campaign finance reform part of the initiative was explained to those who signed the petition and that there was less than full disclosure on the attempt to change the voting procedures. The three council members who voted for drafting an alternate ballot measure — Maloney, David Mejia and Ross Maza — all cited personal anecdotes to underscore this concern. Maza is Alhambra’s mayor and Mejia now serves as vice mayor.

Proponents of the initiative reject the majority council argument and strongly maintain that the citizens of Alhambra are savvy enough to determine what’s in a petition.

They also believe that the district-by-district system will open the electoral process to a wider range of candidates who would be focused on the specific needs of the districts they choose to represent. The campaign finance limitations would make it easier for this broader cross section to run without the expense of city-wide mailings and lawn signs.

The city’s alternative ballot measure is due to come back to the city council for a first reading at its Monday meeting. It was not immediately clear if the Shenkman letter, which may be found at the bottom of this link to the council’s agenda, and the Rafferty letter would delay that timeline.

In concluding his letter, Shenkman urged the city to respond to his letter “no later than June 20, 2020 as to whether you would like to discuss a voluntary change to your current at-large system.”

“Otherwise, on behalf of residents within the jurisdiction, we will be forced to seek judicial relief.”

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3 thoughts on “Alhambra Council Discusses Possible Legal Challenges to At-Large Voting System”

  1. Melissa Michelson

    Glaringly absent from this well balanced and informative article is that 19 people spoke against the councilmen’s intentions, and 2 spoke in favor. Why isn’t there any quotes from the public, when the majority (95%) of the public meeting was devoted to their public comment?

  2. Michael Lawrence

    Vote them out! Maloney’s fumbled attempt to derail Campaign Finance Reform and keep the old corrupt system has now brought judicial review down on the city. This exposes the city to legal expenses that we can not afford. Simply letting the voters decide was not an option for the old guard who cannot give up the control they have held for so long. I hope the voters remember this and vote for his opponent Chris Olson. Sasha Perez is opposing David Mejia and supports the Grassroots Initiative. Both of these women are free from the  special interests that have such a strong influence on  Maza, Mejia and Maloney.

  3. Melissa Michelson

    Letter after letter from concerned residents, some who voted for Councilmen Maloney and Mejia, many are long-time residents of the city, expressed their disappointment, disgust and anger of their ‘hijacking their votes,’ ‘derailing’ the voice and choice of the people’ and accusing them of the 3 councilmen (aka: The Three Amigos) as attempting a ‘blatant power move’, cementing it in stone that the average-Joe/Jane of Alhambra would always be at a disadvantage from running a successful grassroots campaign because of at-large voting.

    The audio is worth a listen, to be found on the City Council’s meeting page from the May 7 th mtg.

    What’s disconcerting is that members of the public cannot access the meeting because the access phone number provided on the agenda is a toll call or some carriers require their customers to sign up for another plan option.