The lawsuit threat means the city must pursue a transition to district elections — thereby limiting its liability to a $30,000 maximum for lawyers' fees — or face paying potentially millions in lawyers' fees in a lawsuit that no California city has ever beaten, according to City Attorney Bill McClure.
So, opting for the former, the council made decisions at a special meeting Oct. 30 to move forward with that plan while continuing to look into other election alternatives.
On Oct. 4, the council passed a resolution declaring its intent to change election systems. (In response to many cities across California facing similar lawsuit threats, a recent state law that took effect this year lays out steps cities must follow to obtain "safe harbor," or protection from a suit while it changes election systems.)
The council approved funding for the National Demographics Corp., a consultant group the city has hired, to create online interactive maps and get public feedback on how district boundaries should be drawn. The consultant will look into how those boundaries might work with either five or six districts. (A six-district system would have an at-large elected mayor.)
Transitioning to an alternative voting system, such as cumulative voting or ranked-choice (also called "instant runoff") voting would require Menlo Park to change from a "general law" city to a charter city. That would require approval of voters. An election could be held in 2018 but the city's status would not change until 2020, according to Steve Chessin, who spoke during public comment and is president of Californians for Election Reform, an advocacy group.
Facing such threatened litigation is like having "a gun to your head," Menlo Park Mayor Kirsten Keith said.
The only sure way to avoid a lawsuit is to switch to district elections within 90 days of committing to look into it, which the council voted to do Oct. 4.
That means the council is facing a Jan. 2 deadline to decide and vote on how many council members there should be and whether the mayor should be elected by fellow council members (the current practice) or by voters.
Sticking to that timeline will require public meetings during the holiday season, when people have other things going on. Getting people to participate in defining district boundaries and exploring election system options will be hard over the holidays, council members agreed.
One of the big questions is whether the unnamed plaintiff or plaintiffs and their attorney, Malibu-based Kevin Shenkman, will give the city an extension to work through its traditionally more lengthy public process.
Based on his conversations with Mr. Shenkman, City Attorney Bill McClure told the council he believes that so long as the problem of racially polarized voting is fixed in Menlo Park by the November 2018 elections, the city will not be sued.
Chalise Tilton, analyst at the National Demographics Corp., told the council that it can put together interactive maps online that include population and demographics information that people can play with to figure out what fair boundaries might be.
Districts must be based on total population, but a key part of developing where district boundaries are drawn comes down to defining what she called "communities of interest."
One measure the council favored is getting locals on board to help decide how the city should be divided. The council gave Ms. Tilton a green light to move ahead with putting together an interactive online map people can use to come up with their own map suggestions.
The map programs are expected to cost at least $20,000 and are expected to be released near the next scheduled meeting to discuss reforming the city's election system, on Nov. 29.
The former mayor of the city of Poway in Southern California, Don Higginson, has sued the state in federal court, alleging that district elections constitute "racial gerrymandering." He seeks a preliminary injunction to halt the change to district elections statewide until the lawsuit is decided.
Councilwoman Catherine Carlton asked what would happen if the injunction prevails. Mr. McClure responded that a ruling may not be made for months and that the city can't wait for that outcome to make a decision.
Onc challenge for Menlo Park is that the city would use 2010 census data to draw district boundaries, but the city has changed since then. A lot of new housing has been built on the east side. About 540 high-end apartments on Haven Avenue opened for tenancy this year. More changes are coming.
Facebook has proposed to build 1,500 units on the city's east side as part of its Willow Campus. While Facebook has said tenancy would be open to the public, the racial makeup of the new residents might differ from the city's Belle Haven neighborhood, which is predominantly Latino and African American.
Facebook reported in August that 5 percent of its U.S. employees are Hispanic and 3 percent are black. The worry is that adding many new residents could dilute the power of Belle Haven minority votes.
District boundaries would be redrawn again after the 2020 census.
People can submit comments to the National Demographics Corp. at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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