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Voting Reform, Legal Challenges Take Center Stage at Alhambra Council Meeting

Photo by Alhambra Source.

Location

Alhambra , CA

Much of Monday afternoon’s special meeting of the Alhambra City Council was taken up with the issue of the charter amendment initiative on the November ballot that would impose campaign finance rules for local elections and establish a by-district process for city council elections.

The discussion was part of a first reading of the city ordinance approving the placing of that measure on the ballot as well as city council elections in districts 3 and 4 and a separate charter amendment removing references to the Alhambra Unified School District from the city  charter. The school district, which primarily includes students from Alhambra, Monterey Park, Rosemead and San Gabriel, was requesting this step so that it too can move to by-district elections. 

But there was no mistaking that the Alhambra Election and Campaign Finance Reform Act, as the initiative is called, was the topic of the day.

Last week, the city received letters from two attorneys threatening legal action if Alhambra did not voluntarily change its voting system from the current at-large model, which has been in place in the city since 1914, to the district-by-district model that many cities, including South Pasadena and Monterey Park, have adopted to avoid legal challenges tied to the California Voting Rights Act.

The city council, along with city manager Jessica Binnquist and city attorney Joseph Montes, met in closed session last Thursday to consider those letters and a response. But before that closed session, there as public comment on the campaign reform measure and most of it came in the form of angry messages by those in favor charging that a recent directive from the council to begin the process of putting another measure on the November ballot that only placed limits on campaign contributions was an attempt to confuse Alhambra’s voters.

That measure, put forth at the April 27 meeting, was offered by council member Jeff Maloney and supported by Mayor Ross J. Maza and Vice Mayor David Mejia. Maloney maintained that the at-large system offers advantages for the whole of Alhambra’s residents to have a voice in the city’s affairs and his two council colleagues agreed. And, on a 3-2 vote, city staff was directed to look into crafting the alternative measure. 

But events took a turn last week with a letter to the city from attorney Kevin Shenkman and, the day before the special council meeting a letter from another attorney Scott Rafferty, calling for voluntary changes in the voting process or the prospect of legal action. Both attorneys have records of success in litigation against cities who balked at switching to by-district voting. 

One of Shenkman’s clients is Grassroots Alhambra, which led the fight for the ballot initiative covering finance reform and by-district voting.

In prefacing the conversation Monday, Montes said that “in light of all that, the other charter amendment has not been added” to Monday’s agenda at this time “If it will be added at all that will be at the direction of the council,” he added.

On Monday, those in favor of retaining the status quo, in terms of at-large voting, were out in force making up perhaps half of the telephone and emailed comment. 

Former Mayor Barbara Messina was one of two residents who commented by telephone and she led off the discussion.

“The city council was ready to put options on the ballot to let voters decide which system was best,” she said of the alternate measure, “but  Grassroots being disingenuous was not secure in their initiative and they brought in a lawyer to sue the city and we now have to pay a lawyer to respond.”

By doing this, she said, “Grassroots took away your right to choose how the city is governed.”

She went on to say that the three council members who advanced this measure had the best interests of the city at heart and “we need to support them in all their endeavors in the future.”

Mejia and Maloney are running for re-election in November. 

Taking the opposing view was Cliff Bender, a longtime resident, retired LAUSD teacher and activist.

Bender said by phone that he was “pleased” that the alternate ballot measure is not included in today’s ordinance. Of the Grassroots measure, he said he supported “this initiative as written.”

“This  is not about about merits of the initiative but actions in obstructing the democratic process. Regardless of personal opinion it received the number of signatures necessary to be on the ballot.”

The three council members who supported the crafting of an alternative measure stated that they want to give voters an option but, Bender maintained, they already have an option. “They can say no.” 

The rest of the commentary, both pro and con, came in the form of 25 or so emails to the city which were read into the record by City Clerk Lauren Myles. 

Many of the comments took Grassroots to task saying the organization does not represent their views or what’s best for Alhambra. “The majority of us supported the three council members who voted for the alternate bill,” one of the letters said. 

They criticized Grassroots for again putting the city in legal jeopardy, a reference to an earlier action Grassroots took to stop a Lowe’s hardware store moving in on Fremont Ave on a toxic-waste site. One resident said the city now faces the prospect of having to pay “hundreds of thousands in legal fees for the attorneys to go away” but it was not immediately clear where that financial figure came from.

Those taking the opposing view said that city leaders were only bringing the problems down upon themselves with their unwillingness to let the voters decide on the Grassroots-backed initiative without confusing the process with an opposing measure.  

One letter suggested that the Grassroots petition signing initiative was indiscriminate and included signatures from people who resided in El Sereno. This assertion was knocked down during council comment when Council Member Adele Andrade-Stadler asked City Clerk Myles to explain how petition signatures were verified.

Myles responded that once the city clerk finishes the count of the signatures it turns the matter over to L.A. County which verifies that the names on the petition are registered voters. “The city doesn’t verify, but the county does,” Myles said.

Grassroots has stated that it gathered more than 8,500 signatures and of that number  7,809 were officially verified. Only 6,145 were needed to place the measure on the ballot, Grassroots has said.

One resident took offense at the characterization of the three-council members backing the alternate measure as “the Three Amigos.” This characterization, used by some on social media who support the Grassroots initiative, was viewed as racist on a city council that is diverse. Three of the five members have Latinx roots, one Japanese and the other Chinese.

In council comment, both Mejia and Maza took offense. Maza said he immigrated to this country at a young age and said he very definitely was “not an amigo and this is very offensive to me.”

“I support a democratic process that gives the city a chance to vote on districts vs. at large,” he said.

As the discussion wound down, Montes was asked if an affirmative vote was an endorsement by the city for the Grassroots initiative. He responded that it was not but a statutory duty by the council to put it on the ballot.

The council vote was 5-0 and the measure passed its first test. It will come back for a required second read at the first regularly scheduled meeting in June. The council then adjourned into closed session for more discussions on the Shenkman and Rafferty challenges.

Before the lengthy back and forth on the November ballot, the council considered an urgency ordinance that amends the eviction moratorium ordinance to include a prohibition on rent increases, which would be retroactive from March 4 and run through May 31. The council voted 5-0 in favor of this but refrained from extending it past the May 31 date out of concerns over legal exposure from landlords and interest in what happens to the “Safer at Home” order, which is due to expire, unless extended, on that date.

The council also passed a number of items on the consent agenda. The full council agenda and the Shenkman and Rafferty letters may be found on the city website. 

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