Draw the line: District-based elections taking hold in Tri-Valley

How the California Voting Rights Act is overhauling Tri-Valley elections, and what it means for voters

The Dublin San Ramon Services District is closing in on confirming this map as its new geographic breakdown for Board of Directors seats under new district-based elections -- a move made in response to a petition filed with DSRSD and other San Ramon Valley local government agencies. (Map courtesy of DSRSD)

Many local elections in the Tri-Valley are in the midst of a major makeover, and come 2020, voters in the area will find a variety of changes on their ballots as a result.

In response to petitions citing the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), government agencies throughout the Tri-Valley have been transitioning from their previous practice of at-large voting to district-based elections. This process is being pushed by organizations stating that at-large elections cause racially polarized voting and threatening litigation if local governments do not make the change.

Under district-based elections, for say a City Council, the city's boundaries will be divided into distinct geographical districts, each being represented by one elected council member. During elections, residents will only vote for the lone seat designated for candidates who live in their geographical area, as opposed to the current practice where residents vote for all available candidates at-large.

So far, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD), San Ramon City Council, Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD), Livermore City Council, Dublin Unified School District (DUSD), Danville Town Council and San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District either have made the change already or are in the process of transitioning from at-large to district-based -- although Danville and the SRVFPD have been able to postpone their decision until after the 2020 election.

"We're not doing this to throw anybody out of office; we're not doing it to give anybody an advantage. It's a long-term reform, you have to keep your eye on the long-term objective," said Scott Rafferty, a Walnut Creek-based attorney and a longtime proponent of district elections.

The Pleasanton City Council and Pleasanton Unified School District (PUSD) are among the remaining Tri-Valley agencies unaffected by the district-election trend around them.

Most recently, the aforementioned San Ramon Valley agencies were petitioned to switch to district elections by a group represented by Rafferty called the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative, threatening litigation unless the agencies comply.

The petition claimed that local governments are in violation of the CVRA, which finds that at-large elections impair the ability of voters in protected classes -- people who are members of a race, color, religion or language minority population group -- to influence the outcome of an election.

"This is not an attempt to displace incumbents, but rather to make a seat at the table for the Asian community and possibly for any other neighborhoods that have been chronically underrepresented," Rafferty said in his petition.

"But it is more critically an opportunity to make local government in the San Ramon Valley more truly representative, to revitalize the engagement of the community in jurisdictions whose elections have been neglected, and to create opportunities for a new generation of political leaders that is as diverse as the growing population of the Valley," the attorney added.

The hope, according to Rafferty, is that when protected classes become the majority population in their own geographical district, they can elect a representative that more accurately represents their interests and ensure that their voices are heard.

Rafferty added that these San Ramon Valley agencies were specifically petitioned due to their relation to the Dougherty Valley, a region in San Ramon with a high population of Asian-American residents.

Both the DUSD and city of Livermore were petitioned by Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman -- in 2017 and 2018, respectively -- on behalf of a group called the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, who also threatened litigation. Although in his petition, Shenkman specifically cited the lack of Latino representation in these agencies as a primary motivator for enforcing the change.

This leaves the Pleasanton City Council and PUSD Board of Trustees as two of the remaining agencies in the Tri-Valley to still practice at-large elections -- the Dublin City Council, Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District and Zone 7 Water Agency also still elect at-large -- and so far have not shown imminent intention to change their election method.

"The city of Pleasanton is aware that some of our neighboring Tri-Valley agencies have transitioned to district elections. City staff is also exploring whether this option makes sense for our community in the near-term," Pleasanton city attorney Dan Sodergren told the Weekly.

"This topic hasn't been discussed as there hasn't been interest or concerns raised," said PUSD spokesperson Patrick Gannon, who added that the district is focused on more immediate projects.

Rafferty declined to comment on future plans for petitioning other Tri-Valley agencies, saying that his efforts right now are focused on empowering the people in the Dougherty Valley.

Changing the equation

District-based elections are common when publicly elected agencies span large areas and multiple communities -- think the Alameda County Board of Supervisors or Chabot-Las Positas Community College District Board of Trustees, for which Pleasanton residents elect a singular representative for their region.

But splitting up smaller communities on an individual basis was unheard of in the Tri-Valley until DUSD, with roughly 25,000 registered voters in all, began its process in 2017 to divide Board of Trustees seats into five distinct trustee areas within DUSD boundaries.

The geographic breakdown would ensure that each key region of that city, notably West Dublin and East Dublin, would have regional representation on the board going forward, as district election supporters argued. But reducing individual trustee election areas also changes the electorate math, which some contend can have consequences.

For example, the DUSD board tried to appoint a provisional trustee, Nini Natarajan, to fill the Trustee Area 4 seat in December after former trustee Joe Giannini resigned. But that appointment was overturned and the seat left vacant due to a provision in state law that allows voters to challenge and demand a special election instead.

Such a petition needs to be signed by 1.5% of voters in the election area, so when DUSD subdivided its boundaries into smaller trustee areas, the petition threshold for Trustee Area 4 -- with its 4,877 registered voters -- was only 74 voter signatures to force the special election, which is now set for June 4.

The math is also changed for recall petitions to remove an elected official from local government office. Though the petition percentages remain the same (between 10% and 30% of registered voters, depending on election area size), the number of actual signatures needed can be significantly reduced due to the lessened electorate count in the smaller election district.

These figures affect smaller areas such as San Ramon and Danville (which have populations estimated around 76,000 and 43,000, respectively) much more significantly than larger jurisdictions such as Alameda County (1.66 million residents) and San Jose (1.03 million) that have long had district-based elections.

Responding to the petition

Of the San Ramon Valley jurisdictions, so far the SRVUSD is the lone agency to have finished the process; however, the city of San Ramon and DSRSD are nearing the end and plan to publish a final map of their districts within the next month.

The SRVFPD has agreed to make the transition after the 2020 U.S. Census, and Rafferty has stated that Danville will consider making the change pending an analysis of population data from the 2020 census.

Rafferty himself has been a longtime proponent of district-based elections, saying he has lobbied for voting rights since 1975. His involvement in petitioning San Ramon Valley agencies to make the change is not his first foray into litigation over the issue, as he previously spearheaded the efforts to change the West Contra Costa Unified School District's elections.

Members of Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative are much more protective of their identity, their anonymity being necessary due to the harassment members have faced in the past, Rafferty said.

"We're an unincorporated association, we'd be a much more public association but ... some of our members have been harassed," he told the Weekly. "In both this district (the SRVUSD) and West Contra Costa there have been people, who have both in the meetings and outside the meetings, been very difficult to some of our group members who have spoken out... We've also had some very aggressive personal attacks."

At public meetings held discussing the transition, many San Ramon Valley agencies have had low public turnout, and the majority of those who show up have expressed negative views on what some have called Rafferty's "demand letter" forcing them to make the change.

The CVRA went into effect in 2002, however many local agencies -- or at least those found in the Tri-Valley -- have been unwilling to voluntarily make the switch to district-based elections. In fact, out of the seven agencies currently using or in the process of transitioning to district-based elections, none made the switch without having been petitioned to do so.

One major point of contention critics highlight is the reduction of voting opportunities residents will suffer as a result of being confined to their one designated district.

Using the SRVUSD as an example, the change will essentially mean residents will only have the opportunity to vote for one trustee every four years, instead of two or three trustee positions every two years, as is the case under at-large voting.

"The Voting Rights Act was (meant) to help people, but when you look at our board that means that individuals in our community will only be able to vote for school board trustees every four years now. They will lose a voting opportunity to make their opinions known about what's going on in a school district, and that's wrong," SRVUSD trustee Ken Mintz said at his district's Dec. 17 board meeting.

Another fear for some public officials is the potential loss of cohesion and teamwork among governments due to officials choosing to only represent the needs of the constituents who live in their slice of the city, instead of the wider community as a whole.

"I've always felt that I've always represented San Ramon. I don't represent (my neighborhood) ... I represent all of you," San Ramon Councilman Scott Perkins said during his city's review of the transition. "We all took an oath to represent the Constitution of the state of California, which says I represent the community that I live in. (And) I've worked with people from all over town and we have different views on lots of things."

Also, all population and demographic data gathered by the San Ramon Valley agencies has been done using information from the 2010 census, and regardless of how they divide their jurisdictions, districts will most likely need to be redrawn once more up-to-date information is collected from the 2020 census -- a fact that many officials lamented.

"We are getting shoved into this and the worst part about it is we are being told to use a 10-year-old census, which makes no sense at all," San Ramon Councilman Dave Hudson said during a public discussion at City Hall.

With a good amount of opposition to district-based elections, why haven't agencies tried their chances in court?

According to San Ramon city attorney Martin Lysons, the CVRA is a particularly powerful provision of the state government that exposes agencies to difficult litigation if they practice at-large voting. He added that so far no California municipality has ever successfully defended at-large elections when faced with litigation and the consequences for failing are severe.

For example, when the city of Palmdale unsuccessfully challenged a request to change to district elections, they ended up paying $4.5 million to the plaintiffs and still switched to district elections, Lysons said.

"This can cripple cities financially ... the cost if we lose would be astronomical," San Ramon Mayor Bill Clarkson said last fall.

In the end, Rafferty maintained that his client's intentions are for the betterment of local government and the empowerment of marginalized groups, saying that district elections will make local governments more effective and representative in the long term.

"District(s) are going to be stronger because they will be more in touch with their community," Rafferty said. "It complies with the law and that is going to be a positive change. It's a long-term reform, and it's the right thing to do."

Note: Editor Jeremy Walsh contributed to this story.

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