The City of San Luis Obispo is being threatened with a lawsuit to protect minority groups in city council elections.
On Nov. 13, 2019, the city received a letter demanding they switch to electing council members by district, citing the California Voting Rights Act, according to council documents.
City council members are currently elected at-large. This means the entire city collectively elects five council members. When voting in district elections, residents select a single council member from their geographical section of the city to represent them on the council.
District elections are intended to give communities a better chance of being represented on the city council, especially communities of color.
The demand letter was sent by attorney Robert Goodman on behalf of his client Jamie Gomez.
Goodman’s letter demanded the City Council adopt a resolution within 45 days outlining its intention to transition to district elections. However, the city has negotiated an agreement that gives the city until Jan. 31 to address the letter’s claims.
By law, cities receiving demand letters have a 45-day period in which they cannot be sued to evaluate options and respond to demand letters.
If a resolution has not been adopted by the Jan. 31 deadline, Goodman said they will take legal action to require the city to institute district elections.
The California Voting Rights Act requires cities to pay all legal fees, which can range from tens of thousands to the several million-dollar range, according to a news release.
The city council’s response
Mayor Heidi Harmon said the council has made the decision to refrain from going to district elections because she said there are no areas of the community where diversity is more lacking than the others.
“I don’t think it would do anything to increase diversity or inclusion which is in theory its intention,” Harmon said. “Unfortunately we are already in such a diversity deficit that going to districts, it doesn’t make sense.”
City staff is working with the plaintiff to reach a resolution without changing the city’s election procedures.
City Attorney Christine Dietrick said the plaintiff overstated minority influence in local elections, which undermine the plaintiffs’ conclusions. City staff has sent Goodman information about existing efforts underway to advance diversity, equity, inclusivity and good local governance.
What is at stake
In the last few years, dozens of California cities have received similar threats pointing back to the California Voting Rights Act, according to the news release.
If San Luis Obispo were to change to voting by districts, the city would need to follow an aggressive schedule to make the changes. Detailed demographic data would need to be gathered and the city would need to hold public hearings to consider district boundaries, according to the news release. The current council would play a part in outlining the districts.
Generally, the final district map must be approved within 90 days of making the decision to switch to district elections, according to the news release.
In the county, Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Grover Beach, and King City are making the change to district elections, according to the news release.
The potential litigation is on the agenda in closed session at the next city council meeting Jan. 14.