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Petaluma officials to discuss alternate voting options amid lawsuit threat

The Petaluma City Council on Monday will discuss the possibility of moving to district elections after city officials were threatened with a lawsuit on claims that the city’s current at-large election system violates state voting rights law.

In a letter sent Aug. 19, Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman said Petaluma’s at-large city council election system is “racially polarized,” adding that it violates California’s Voting Rights Act of 2001, which prohibits the use of at-large elections “if it would impair the ability of a protected class.” Shenkman threatened to sue the city if it didn’t change its ways by Oct. 8.

”It appears that in the past 20 years, the City’s elections have been almost completely devoid of Latino candidates, and 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,“ according to Shenkman’s letter.

Nearly 22% Petalumans are Latino, according to the latest census figures.

Shenkman has submitted similar complaints to city governments throughout California in the past decade, focusing on cities with concentrated populations of underrepresented racial minorities.

Statewide, more than 100 local governments have switched election systems under threat of litigation by Shenkman or other attorneys.

Many of those quickly comply, including Santa Rosa in 2017, Windsor last fall and Rohnert Park in January 2020. More than a dozen cities have fought back, but each lost, officials say, a fact Barrett acknowledged in the decision to discuss election alternatives.

“This is something that this law firm has done throughout the state of California, so we have some data points that show us that he has been successful in moving cities in this direction,” Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett said. “So we take this very seriously.”

Because the litigation threat came after the 2020 Census was completed, city officials will have fresh data to analyze when considering the options, Barrett said, adding that the point of Monday’s meeting is to dig into the numbers.

Switching to district-based elections is a task that has loomed over Petaluma for decades. Sonoma County’s second-largest city features a sharp east-west divide, and all seven of the elected city council members reside on the west side.

David McCuan, chair and professor of political science at Sonoma State University, said the at-large election process tends to water down voices at City Hall.

“The evidence, the data, tell us that not as many diverse voices are heard,” said McCuan, adding that district-based elections would likely usher in a shift in council priorities. “So district elections will help with that but they won’t solve that problem.”

City officials, though, said there may be other ways to ensure equitable representation.

Council member Dennis Pocekay added to the list of possible options, suggesting the single transferable vote method, a voting system that requires voters to rank multiple preferred candidates on their ballots. He said that way may be more beneficial for a city that has a minority population spread throughout multiple areas of town.

“One of the biggest advantages of the district system is that someone can be elected and not have to spend as much money, and for example, would only have to knock on 5,000 doors instead of 30,000,” Pocekay said. “So it makes it easier for someone who is working full time on another job or has children at home to run. On the other hand, some folks are concerned that when your district is so small, it is easier for someone who has a lot more money to flood those homes with advertising.”

The Argus-Courier previously reported that at least 59 of the state’s 482 cities hold district elections, and 28 made the switch between 2011 and 2016 alone.

Council member Mike Healy, who has been active at City Hall for more than two decades, said he agrees district-based elections would bring greater representation for minority groups, but he also said said he worries about other impacts from the shift.

“I am concerned that, with district elections, you will have council members that will be hyper-focused on their own neighborhoods, and not really that concerned with citywide issues or issues in other parts of the city,” said Healy, whose seat could be in jeopardy with a district-based election.

City council members said that no set decision will be made at Monday’s meeting, which will instead act as a starting point to discuss the best election option for Petaluma, and how such options would move forward.

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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