Exeter City Council will hold their final meeting over district elections, seeks solution on charter change


By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN

EXETER – The work over district elections is just about over for the City of Exeter. Already they have held their required four public hearings, and their last meeting over the matter will be next week on Tuesday, Nov. 14. But all that is left to do is make formal what they have already decided.

During their Oct. 24 meeting the Exeter City Council came to a consensus over the “Yellow Map”, which was one out of three different maps splitting up the city into five equal districts. The “Yellow Map” has the added benefit of dividing the core of downtown into four of the five districts. As well, like the other maps the sequencing of elections falls in line with where the current council members live. The maps went on to reveal that the three council members up for reelection in 2018 – mayor Teresa Boyce, mayor pro tem Mary Waterman and Gordon Gerdes – are in the same districts up for reelection in 2018. As well the following two council members up for reelection in 2020 – Dale Sally and Jeremy Petty – are in the same districts up for reelection in 2020. However, Gerdes has indicated that he will not be seeking re-election next year.

Reversing course on the map is all together unlikely in their fifth and final meeting on the subject, but there is still one important thing left to do and that is change the City Charter. According to Exeter city manager Randy Groom, the City will have to give voters the opportunity to vote down the change from at-large to district elections. However, because it is unconstitutional to have at-large elections, if voters voted down the change, the courts would overrule the vote and force the change to the charter anyway.  And holding an election for that one item can be costly, Groom ballparked the cost at roughly $20,000.

Groom referred to the case in Visalia where the City was forced to move to district elections. Groom noted that residents voted down the charter change twice before the courts stepped in. He said that he would rather go straight to the courts instead of holding the vote as a measure of due diligence.

“Even if [voters] say no, we have to spend more money and lose…we don’t have that kind of money to spend on pointless legal processes,” Groom said. “How do we do it and not waste tax payer money if the result is going to be the same no matter what we do?”

Exeter’s final meeting over districts and the subsequent charter adjustment is the final step in what has been a multi month ordeal starting in July when the City received a letter from Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman and Hughes Attorneys. Shenkman is asserting that the City of Exeter is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) with their at-large elections. Exeter is just the latest city to be caught in Shenkman’s crosshairs, as he has taken several cities to task over the CVRA. Shenkman says in his letter to the City that, “Voting rights advocates have targeted ‘at-large’ election schemes for decades because they often result in ‘vote dilution,’ or the impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect their preferred candidates or influence the outcome of elections, which occurs when the electorate votes in a racially polarized manner.”

Also in the letter Shenkman refers to his recent win over the City of Palmdale. The courts forced the City to pay Shenkman and Palmdale voters Juan Jaurequi, Jesse Smith and Nigel Holly $4.5 million plus interest. Shenkman argued that the City’s at-large voting system deprived them of the opportunities to elect representatives of their choice. The decision to fight Shenkman in the courts was contentious given his history of prevailing in these cases.

Shenkman’s argument is roughly the same stating in his letter that, “Exeter’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Exeter’s council elections.” He goes on to use Latino candidate James Garcia who unsuccessfully ran in 2006, 2008 and 2010 as an illustrative example. Shenkman asserts that in each of his campaigns he received significant support from the Latino minority. “However, due to the bloc voting of the non-Latino majority – who preferred Mr. Garcia’s non-Latino opponents, Mr. Garcia was unable to secure a city council position in 2006, 2008 or 2010.”

Shenkman has been able to successfully argue vote dilution because of changes in the CVRA. In the letter Shenkman says that the California Legislature did away with the requirement that a minority group demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to substantiate a “majority-minority district.” Now all the CVRA requires is that a plaintiff show the existence of racially polarized voting to show that at-large elections violate the CVRA.

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