Mission Viejo Districting
The City of Mission Viejo (the "City") received a certified letter on September 29, 2017 from Kevin Shenkman, an attorney with the Malibu-based law firm of Shenkman & Hughes. The letter asserts that the City's at-large electoral system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a protected class) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the City's council elections. As a result, the letter asserts that the City's at-large electoral system violates the California Voting Rights Act ("CVRA"). Mr. Shenkman claims "polarized voting" is occurring and threatens litigation if the City declines to voluntarily convert to district-based elections for the City Council.
The City currently utilizes an at-large election system, which means that the electors from the entire City choose each member of the City Council. A district-based election system is one in which the city is physically divided into separate districts, each with one council member who resides in the district and is chosen by the electors residing in that particular district.
Cities throughout the state of California have increasingly been facing legal challenges such as this to their "at-large" systems of electing council members. Almost all have settled claims out of court by voluntarily shifting to district-based elections. On September 28, 2016, the Governor signed Assembly Bill 350 into law, which attempts to provide a "safe harbor" from CVRA litigation for cities. If a city receives a demand letter, such as in Mission Viejo's case, the city is given 45 days of protection from litigation to assess its situation. Specifically, if within that 45 days, a city adopts a resolution declaring the council's intent to transition from at-large to district-based elections outlining specific steps to be undertaken to facilitate the transition, and estimating a time frame for action, then a potential plaintiff is prohibited from filing a CVRA action for an additional 90-day period.
After evaluation, the Office of the City Attorney and Executive Staff believe that taking advantage of the safe harbor language under Assembly Bill 350 is the most appropriate action for the City to take. Under this "safe harbor," the City is required to hold five (5) public hearings within the allotted 90-day framework. The public hearings will give the community an opportunity to weigh in on the composition of the districts and provide input regarding the content of the draft maps and the proposed sequence of elections. The final public hearing will be when the Council votes to consider an ordinance establishing district-based elections.