Under threat of a civil rights lawsuit, Elk Grove agrees to begin process to switch to by-district elections

Elk Grove resident Amar Shergill telling four members of the Elk Grove City Council they are civil rights violators. | 

Last night the Elk Grove City Council adopted a recommendation from city attorney Jonathan Hobbs to start the process of converting to by-district elections and representation for the city's four council districts. Although the vote was unanimous, it was passed under a threat of a potentially costly lawsuit against the city for violation of the California Voters Rights Act.  

That threat had come from the law firm of Shenkman & Hughes, who has successfully litigated against other California municipalities. Most notably, attorney Kevin Shenkman collected $4.5 million in fees from the City of Palmdale, who also spend over $7 million of taxpayers money in defense, after they lost the legal fight to maintain at-large elections.

In his presentation, Hobbs said although the city's current from district system - where representatives reside in specific geographic areas but are elected citywide - are considered to be at-large systems. Under the CVRA, at-large systems are considered to be discriminatory. 

Although the city will start the transition process by immediately hiring a demographer at the costs of $40,000 to draw districts maps, four city council members - Steve Detrick, Pat Hume, Stephanie Nguyen, and Darren Suen, have steadfastly opposed the switch. Since becoming Mayor in 2016, Steve Ly has been the sole council member in support of the change.

Hobbs advised the council even if there is no intention to have a system that creates racially polarized voting, absence of that does not exempt the city from compliance to the CVRA. With the passing of the resolution, the city council will conduct public hearings in the next 90 days.

The four members have defended the current at-large system saying it made them responsive to the whole city with Hume characterizing the system as "elegant." Aside from excluding minority candidate, Latinos in Elk Grove's case, advocates of by-district noted incumbents in the current at-large system favors incumbents and the switch to by-district could make elections more competitive especially for minority and women candidates.   

"The California Voters rights act prohibits at-large methods that result in racially polarized voting," Hobbs told the city council. "It was noted in the staff report there is no finding of racially polarized voting, there has been no determination on that at this point for any type of minority class."

After receiving an early July demand letter from Kevin Shankman of Shenkman & Hughes, the city issued an ultimatum to comply with the CVRA by-district requirements or face a lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the possible lawsuit are Elk Grove resident Andres' Ramos and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

During public comment, Elk Grove resident Amar Shergill made an impassioned presentation urging the city council to adopt the resolution, establish by-district election in the 2020 cycle and not try to delay action until 2022. Shergill has repeatedly called on the city to voluntarily switch to by-district voting not only to ensure compliance to the CVRA but to avoid unneeded taxpayers litigation expenses.

"Elk Grove has been engaging in institutional racism for quite some time, the California Assembly says we are," Shergill said. "We are civil rights violators."

Shergill also took the opportunity to criticize the four councilmembers for the racial composition of the Elk Grove Planning Commission, which currently has five white members. In the last two years, Ly's efforts to diversify the commission have been stymied. 

"I've been telling you for a year we have a planning commission with no people of color in a town which is a majority of people of color," he said. "And you sit here and say 'we are going to delay by-district maybe 2020, maybe 2024,' I want to hear from you tonight, are you going to do it right away, not be civil rights violators."  

Immediately following those comments, Detrick asked Shergill if he would support delaying the switch until completion of the 2020 census. By implication, if the process was postponed until the conclusion of the census, changes would not take place until 2022.

Shergill quickly replied to Detrick saying, "The time for justice is always right now."

Copyright by Elk Grove News © 2019. All right reserved.










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6 comments

Randy Bekker said...

The cities decision to move from our current form of electing council members to By District voting has been forced on us through a threatening law suit. A form of bullying with no factual evidence that any ethnicity has been harmed in voting or running for office. No council member has ever lost their district an went on to win by the overall city vote. Weak candidates? They blame it’s the cost to running against an incumbent to run a campaign for the entire city but there is no campaign finance control so basically instead of spending money for entire city you now will be able to increase what you spend per voter in your district. Citizens lose, you have 5 that represent you a Mayor an 4 Council members with By District you will only be able to vote for your District Council member an the Mayor as the other 3 council members you will never get to vote for as they still will sit in jurisdiction of City business. The attorney suing cities to change is some what like the attorney suing businesses over ADA law. Some cities probably needed to change as how they were doing their elections needed changing other cities had a better way but forced to change due to threatening law suits. We only need to look at Sacramento on how this new system of voting for council will work. It cheapens the process an brings weaker candidates. Those that think it will be a better way of voting I would only say good luck. It has not proven out to be that way in other cities. We have been here before with the county prior to city hood. At some point in the future you will have candidates only concerned for their district not the entire city.

Eye on Elk Grove said...

Randy Bekker, I want to comment on your last sentence. Given what you wrote, are you saying that at the special meeting when Pat Hume called out CNU for using up political capital, that if the city of Elk Grove was already by-district, Hume, who represents District 2, would not have spoken up because the proposed project is in District 1 and he wouldn't give a damn?

Do you know Hume's heritage here in Elk Grove? Hume may be a lot of things, but here is one thing we do know, Hume cares about all of Elk Grove, not just his district.

If the same isn't true of all four council members, and as Steve Detrick previously stated that council members might engage in voting swapping (which is illegal, by the way) they need to resign right now.

Randy Bekker said...

My comments are not about current council members or those that have announced their candidacy but in the future. As someone who has grown up here in the area for over 43 years I am full aware of the commitment to the city of the council members. However future council members will not be as engaged in our city an will only care of their districts to be re-elected.

Capt. Benjamin Willard said...

After viewing the video of Mr. Shergill's comments from last night, I was taken aback - pleasantly I might add - on his skill of speaking truth to power.

If we strip away many of the usual excuses of the four council members, writing as a white person, I think there is something more elemental in Mr. Detrick's comments and exchange with Mr. Shergill. His vocal opposition to by-district elections is a reaction, or more accurately, reactionary to the world he sees quickly changing.

Mr. Detrick is scared that a woman, one of color no less, now has a fighting chance against him, or perhaps Mr. Spease in the 2020 election. As for Mr. Shergill, perhaps Mr. Detrick is nothing more than intimidated by his intellect.

I realize Mr. Detrick is a few years behind me, but I might suggest he listen to Bob Dylan's anthem "The times they are a changin" because they are and your resistance is out of tune with life in Elk Grove and America.

Connie said...

Randy, I have lived in the rural area, District 2, for over 40 years, long before there was ever a Westside. I want by-district voting for all the reasons stated by Amar Shergill and more.

As to your second comment, two of the current council members, when they were first candidates, were also in favor of by-district voting because of the money it cost to run a citywide election to unseat an incumbent. They were also in favor of campaign finance reform. Of course, they flipped after they became incumbents.

I, along with most people, would never vote for anyone who is guided by the boundaries of their respective district. Just like you and I don’t stay in our district when it comes to other very important issues that affect other districts, such as the CNU issue. Isn’t that true?

Randy Bekker said...

Connie, we will have to agree to disagree on some things respectfully as the same with Amar as his comments are not factual to past elections an are political talking points. Finance reform will not change anything with the SCOTUS decision on PAC money, at least the way it is now we know who is contributing money to which candidates or issues. You an I and a few others are concerned what goes on with our entire city as we have spent decades here. New residents or residents with less time don’t pay much attention or show concerns. They have a new neighborhood, parks, schools an involved in their kids sports or functions. Take CNU we both have our displeasures but most people want a hospital and with District voting you will find that except those living around the proposed hospital wants it. Since we are moving to district voting those council members will be more beholding to their districts instead of the entire city. Under the new voting of council members you will get candidates elected by their districts not the entire city. To be elected or re-elected they will need only pay attention to those who vote for them. It may take a couple cycles of elections but at some point it will happen.

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