Rather than waiting for an inevitable legal fight, Beaumont has opted to be progressive in planning for future elections.
The city is in a fortunate position that minorities make up more than half of its council, making it a less likely target for those seeking to sue for violations of the CVRA.
At its May 5 city council meeting, Grace Garner, an attorney with the Palm Springs-based firm SBEMP discussed the implications of the California Voting Rights Act, which the state strongly encourages cities to adhere to.
The CVRA was signed into law in 2002 and was designed to prohibit the use of at-large elections, which Beaumont presently uses, and prevent “protected classes” from electing candidates of their choice, or wielding an ability to influence the outcome of an election.
When Banning resorted to by-district elections in 2016, proponents advocating for the changing of the electoral system were able to single out Sun Lakes Country Club for regularly having a couple of representatives on the five-member council.
The La Quinta-based Law Offices of Matt H. Morris had pointed out that despite Banning having a voter population at the time that was 41 percent Latino, no Latino person within the previous 15 years had been elected to office.
According to Beaumont officials, the 2010 census portrays Beaumont’s 30,000 residents as being 42 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic or Latino, 6.2 percent African American, and 1.5 percent Native American.
All hearings and legal actions regarding CRVA are on hold during the state’s quarantine, Garner pointed out, and she was not concerned that Beaumont was in any immediate danger of being legally pursued for not having a by-district voting system. If Beaumont chose to be complacent, or worse, fight potential litigation, such efforts would be futile, Garner warned. And it can be expensive, beginning with the demand letter telling the city to switch to voter districts: receiving one practically entitles a plaintiff to receive $30,000 regardless of whether a municipality acts on the letter’s contents or not.
When Banning was being advised on the process, it had been informed by Douglas Johnson, president of Claremont-based National Demographics Corporation, that Palmdale fought the CVRA in court and lost after having to dole out $4.5 million; other cities settled after costs were incurred in similar cases: Modesto, $3 million, Anaheim $1.1 million, and Madera Unified School District, $1.8 million.
“Santa Monica lost millions in legal fees fighting it, and still ended up having to move to districts,” Garner said.
Councilman Lloyd White, claiming to not be a fan of by-district elections, expressed concern that “You have less people voting, and more people can run unopposed” while holding on to those seats for several terms with no real accountability that they would encounter if they had opponents.
“It’s inevitable. The fact that we’re talking about it means we’re going to do it,” White said. “Beaumont doesn’t have the concentrations of population that’s going to address the issues. Banning had to move to districts because one (homeowners association), Sun Lakes, was seating the majority of the council. In Beaumont we have the opposite” situation.
Councilmember Nancy Carroll was “Extremely proud about how diverse this council is.”
“We are extraordinarily diverse, and I think that’s part of our strengths as a council that we are,” Carroll said.
She noted that Beaumont’s city council has not historically enjoyed the diversity it is experiencing today.
Councilman Julio Martinez said “It takes a great council to look at what our city could look like.
We have the luxury of time” to hire a demographer and receive input from residents, and to wait until after the results of the latest census currently underway.
Martinez, whose seat is up in November, said that districting has nothing to with any political motives.
Carroll agreed, noting that a process probably would not be in place before November anyway, and would not likely affect any current council member’s seat.
“We don’t want to see the city” forced to go through the process under duress, as Banning did, Carroll said. “We don’t want it costing us more, or getting caught sticking our head in the sand. We want to continue the diversity we have on our council.”
Counsel Garner pointed out that by-district electorates are not a foolproof means for ensuring diversity, noting that it is possible that under such a system a council could still end up having all council members be of the same ethnic background.
The council directed the city to come back with a resolution they could vote on, which would officially declare its intent to create voter districts, and requested funds to be allocated in their 2021 budget for demographer services.