By Keri Brenner, Marin Independent Journal
San Rafael officials, facing threat of a potential multimillion dollar lawsuit compelling them to switch to district elections, said this week they will take up the issue again at the next City Council meeting.
“We hope to answer a lot of these questions,” said Mayor Gary Phillips before about 90 people Monday at a public study session on the issue. Phillips said the item, to be placed on the Dec. 4 meeting agenda, will review a series of options for the city as laid out Monday by attorney Christopher Skinnell, of the Nielsen Merksamer law firm in San Rafael, who specializes in the issue.
After listening to public comment and hearing about options, the City Council will vote at its Dec. 18 meeting whether to switch from at-large elections, where each official is elected citywide, to district elections, where officials run only in the individual district they represent.
The city received a letter on Monday from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, alleging that San Rafael was in violation of the 2002 California Voting Rights Act due to what Shenkman called alleged evidence of “racially polarized voting.” The letter said the city had 45 days to pass a resolution indicating an intent to switch to district elections, or face a potential lawsuit.
Skinnell said Monday the city would have three main options:
• Do nothing or contest the allegations and face a potential lawsuit, exposing the city to a threat of up to $4.5 million in legal fees — as happened in the city of Palmdale in Southern California.
• Switch to five City Council districts by 2020, with a rotating mayor. San Rafael currently is the only Marin municipality with a separately elected mayor. The mayor and the other four council members are currently all elected at-large. Both of the last two City Council elections have been uncontested.
• Switch to four City Council districts by 2020 and keep a separately elected at-large mayor.
Skinnell said he has worked with “hundreds” of other California cities, towns and school districts over the past decade in similar situations who either fought the allegations or opted to move to district elections.
“I’ve had the same questions everywhere I go,” Skinnell said on Tuesday. “There’s the same incredulity (on the potential legal costs) everywhere I go.”
According to Skinnell’s 20-page PowerPoint presentation Monday, legal costs have ranged from $250,000 paid by the city of Tulare to $1.2 million paid by Anaheim to $4.5 million paid by Palmdale.
“The city of Modesto is reported to have paid $1.7 million to its attorneys and $3 million to plaintiffs’ attorneys,” Skinnell said. “The case never even went to trial, though it did get litigated through the appeals courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Shenkman’s campaign, made on behalf of his client the Southwest Voter Reigistration Project, is to allow for more diversity and minority representation on the City Council, because more candidates would be able to afford the lower cost of running a district-wide campaign, compared with canvassing the whole city — the latter a $60,000-to-$80,000 proposition, according to records of several past contested City Council elections. The district-only candidates would also have a better chance of winning, because they would be running in their own home district.
“My question is whether (a court considering the issue) would consider the cost of running for election on an at-large basis,” said Roger Roberts of San Rafael, one of more than a half-dozen people to speak during the public comment period. “(I think) it disadvantages certain areas of the community, particularly the Latino community.”
If approved, the changeover would likely happen for the 2020 elections, after the next U.S. Census — and after all the districts are mapped out by a demographer to be hired by the city.
San Rafael social justice activist Jonathan Frieman, who alerted the city about the statewide legal campaign on the issue being waged by Shenkman, said the change would be a “historic opportunity” for San Rafael, which has never had a Latino council member.
“We have such an incredible opportunity, an historic opportunity,” he said at the meeting. “To be able to shift the minds and cultures of many of us — all of us — in this city, by moving to district elections, because then you’d get more people involved.”
“I think (switching to district elections) would allow for more and better internal representation of the demographics of all communities — not just the Latino community,” said Tamela Fish of the Dominican neighborhood of San Rafael.
She said she wondered about the benefits of keeping a separately elected at-large mayor versus a rotating mayor, where each council member has a turn to serve as mayor.
“It seemed like it boiled down to a cost issue for me,” she said. “I also heard clearly that a lot of other Marin cities have a rotating mayor.”
Another issue, said Lucia Martel-Dow, director of immigration legal services at San Rafael-based Canal Alliance, is making sure the districts are drawn fairly and are representative of different cultures.
“It seems like it’s being driven by outsiders within the community, people who are not necessarily affected by this,” she said. “How are we going to make sure that the people who are affected by this — people of color — have an opportunity to speak, beyond the public comment period time, to do this?”
She added the plan could ideally include some help toward citizenship for potential Latino voters in the Canal neighborhood, which has a concentration of Latino residents.
“I would like to see an effort within the county, because there’s a lot of people who might be eligible to become citizens,” she said. “I think an effort to actually engage the Latino community is key to make sure that the voting population that is actually eligible and voting are put into account.”
Councilwoman Kate Colin, who has organized the Latino Civic Leadership Initiative group since 2015, agreed with Martel-Dow in an op-ed piece in the Independent Journal.
“While I don’t know if a simple legal tool can be used to solve complex issues of diversity, I do know that there are key considerations that need to include the input of the community,” she said.
Ironically, even though all of San Rafael is represented by all five at-large City Council members, the city is divided among three Marin County supervisors’ jurisdictions: Dennis Rodoni, who represents East San Rafael and the Canal; Damon Connolly, who covers central and northern San Rafael; and Katie Rice, who represents Gerstle Park and the southern neighborhoods. Connolly and Rodoni were both present for Monday’s study session.