Petaluma City Council takes step toward district elections amid lawsuit threat

“This is ultimately one of the more important decisions this council or any council can make, as to how we elect our officials,” said council member Dave King.|

The Petaluma City Council on Monday agreed to move toward district-based elections, marking a shift in the city’s at-large election procedure that sits at the center of an ongoing legal threat.

The resolution, which was passed on a unanimous vote with council member D’Lynda Fischer absent, will move the city toward a district-based election format aimed at building better representation and diversity on council

“This is ultimately one of the more important decisions this council or any council can make, as to how we elect our officials,” said council member Dave King. “I’m ready to support the declaration of the intent to initiate procedures to consider transitioning from at-large elections to district-based elections.”

The first in a series of public hearings is expected to take place Nov. 1, where city officials will introduce the transition process and gather public testimony, City Clerk Kendall Rose said.

The move comes after city officials were threatened with a lawsuit in an Aug. 23 letter from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman. In the demand letter, Shenkman claimed Petaluma’s at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act, and that the process has made it difficult for the city’s Latino voters to elect their preferred candidates.

“While opponents of voting rights may claim that indicates an apathy among the Latino community, the courts have held that is an indicator of vote dilution,“ Shenkman’s letter read, in part.

The letter threatened legal action if city officials did not signal its intent to transition from at-large elections by Oct. 8.

Though the Petaluma City Council acted in support of a change to the election process, a number of council members questioned Shenkman’s decision to threaten legal action.

“I’m all for ensuring that the voting process doesn’t have a racial discriminatory component to it,” council member Kevin McDonnell said. “But I’m wondering how this legal firm from Southern California picked this time to send Petaluma a letter.”

More than 100 other California cities have received similar letters in recent years, more than a dozen of those in the Bay Area. Windsor, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park are among those who decided to shift to district-based elections.

The Windsor Town Council this month will consider reversing course after its own shift to district-based elections in 2019 amid the threat of lawsuit. Santa Rosa adopted a district-based model in 2017, and Rohnert Park moved that direction in January 2020.

A district-based election system ultimately would require the officials to divide the city into separate districts, and residents in each particular district would elect a city council member to represent that specific area.

Pedro Toledo is chief administrative officer of Petaluma Health Center, and also part of the state’s redistricting commission. Toledo, an east Petaluma resident, praised the idea of moving to district elections, saying it would align with the California Voting Rights Act.

“While I pray for the day when these protections won’t be necessary, we have these in place to ensure that historically marginalized and excluded communities have a voice in the electoral process,” Toledo said. “I look forward to the day where everyone participates in our democracy and candidates who look like me have a fair shot at participation.”

With the city council’s approval of the resolution, a demographer will work with city officials to map out where each district line will be drawn. The city council must also host two public hearings to receive input on district formation before electoral maps are officially created.

Vice Mayor Brian Barnacle said he would like residents’ income to be a part of district mapping, along with race and location.

“For me, if we treat this as just responding to the CVRA and becoming compliant with the CVRA, we’re checking the box instead of doing the larger thing which is focusing on optimizing representation in our local government,” Barnacle said.

State law grants transitioning cities a 90-day “safe harbor” period barring lawsuits while those cities work to adopt a new ordinance. Petaluma could extend that 90-day period in order to gain further public input before establishing district maps. With that, it must do so no later than six months before the city’s next election.

Once districts are mapped out according to plan, the city’s first district-based election would take place in November 2022.

During the council meeting, some city leaders did bring up other possible alternatives to district-based elections, including rank-choice elections. However Petaluma Deputy City Attorney Dylan Brady said those could create more complications.

“I do think rank choice would fall within at-large elections, which could potentially still leave the city vulnerable,” Brady said. “Today’s scope is really just to start looking at viable options and we will definitely have more public meetings to discuss potential options.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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