Editorial: Fighting the Good Fight?

It could be argued that moving from at-large elections to districts could help a city become more inclusive. It could be argued that district elections help give a voice to minority voters who would otherwise not be heard. It could also be argued that district elections help minority values become local policy. All of these things are worth arguing and fighting for. But that is not what Kevin Shenkman is arguing for, or fighting for. Instead, he is fighting for money.

Shenkman of Shenkman and Hughes Attorneys in Malibu, Calif. has been lining up suits with cities all over California, daring them to fight him in the courtroom. He knows the cards are stacked in his favor. He knows the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA) is designed to deconstruct the at-large system of elections. And he knows that if he wins, it could be a huge payday.

Just last year Shenkman took the City of Palmdale to the cleaners when he and three plaintiffs were awarded $4.5 million plus interest. Shenkman argued that the City of Palmdale’s at-large election system hurt his Latino plaintiffs’ chances of electing their candidate to the city council. The case could have been settled outside of court for considerably less money if the City would have agreed to move to district elections. But they thrust forth thinking they were fighting the good fight — but they weren’t.

The City of Exeter is now coming up against the exact same fight. Shenkman has turned his gaze to the small town of Exeter where there are a mere 4,285 voters in a town of roughly 11,000 people. The city council in Exeter is completely comprised of non-Latino residents, despite the town’s 45.5% Hispanic population. But in the last three elections, not one Latino candidate has entered into the fold. And to that end, not even enough people have thrown their hat in the ring to force an election at all. Last year, Dale Sally kept his seat on the council, and Jeremy Petty took the place of Robyn Stearns who decided to step down. And with only two candidates in the race for two seats, they were both elected in-lieu.

Shenkman had to turn to the 2006, 2008 and 2010 elections to find James Garcia, a three-time failed Latino candidate. Shenkman used Garcia’s failed runs as an illustration of vote dilution that allegedly comes with at-large elections. But the circumstances of Garcia’s campaigns are unclear at best, and the only light Shenkman lends to the subject is a claim that “he received significant support from the Latino minority.” But neither the City of Exeter nor the County of Tulare has exit polls or candidate specific demographic data of any kind, making Shenkman’s claim unverifiable.

Now is the hard part. The City of Palmdale did not fight the good fight, because the good fight cannot be won.

Shenkman’s thinly veiled attempt at concealing his money-motivated law suits is agony to watch. He abuses the legal system with pinpoint accuracy. And it is infuriating when he wins.

The City of Exeter must do the right thing and be a good steward of the public’s money. Using public dollars to run into a legal buzz saw, when a more than adequate cautionary tale exists, is not prudent.

So, in coming elections, residents will more than likely being voting for someone who lives within their district. It will be a change, but fighting a battle that can’t be won is not the good fight at all.

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