In closed session on Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council agreed to enter into a settlement agreement with Gabriella Joseph, a local Latino voter who alleged that the city of Santa Cruz’s system of at-large elections results in racially polarized voting, and that the city is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
Later in the same meeting, the council unanimously agreed to begin transitioning to a district-based election system, one that is now scheduled to be codified in time for the 2022 race.
The council will pay $30,000 to Joseph’s legal representation, a Santa Barbara-based attorney named Robert Goodman. City Attorney Tony Condotti said that the settlement agreement will be a matter of public record, and that, once finalized, it will be available to members of the public upon request.
The coming electoral shift has the potential to dramatically reshape politics in the city of Santa Cruz. That does not necessarily mean that it will result in better Latino representation.
The Voting Rights Act does not require the law firm issuing a legal threat to prove that splitting the city up into election districts would better represent voters of color than any other electoral setup might. Additionally, Pedro Hernandez, senior policy coordinator for nonpartisan voting rights group Fair Vote, told GT last year that it would be difficult for Santa Cruz to draw election boundaries in a way that gives Latino voters sufficient representation.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this position,” Mayor Justin Cummings said shortly before Tuesday’s vote, “because I think that, for many residents of the city, there’s not so much of a preference to move towards district-based elections. However, I hope, as we transition into this process, that the community weighs in heavily on how we should do this, and … we understand the impact that this could have on our community.”
In approving the settlement agreement, the city of Santa Cruz will avoid a potentially costly voting rights-related legal battle. Many communities have been hit with similar legal threats, and no city has prevailed in such a fight. (Most cities settle before the item goes to court, just as Santa Cruz did.) Even if Santa Cruz had fought the case in court and won, the city still would have been on the hook to pay steep legal fees for the defense team.
In the current fiscal year alone, the city of Santa Cruz is already facing an unexpected $10 million deficit, due almost entirely to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The city of Santa Cruz was hit with similar voting rights notice of violation last year from a different Santa Barbara attorney, but the complainant was not a registered Santa Cruz voter, making the complaint legally meritless.
The city had a possible opportunity to more thoughtfully avoid the forced implementation of district elections. In the fall of 2018, the City Council created a new Charter Amendment Committee charged with coming up with new ideas for how best to run Santa Cruz city elections and city government more broadly. At the time, then-Vice Mayor Martine Watkins expressed that perhaps the council might like to wait until after the 2018 election to seat the committee, so that newly seated councilmembers would be able to participate in the appointment process. The council ultimately chose to seat the committee quickly.
But then in early 2019, after the committee started meeting, councilmembers Chris Krohn and Drew Glover—both of whom have since been removed in a divisive recall campaign—pushed to add more seats to the Charter Amendment Committee, a move that drew scrutiny, including from Councilmember Cynthia Mathews. The council ultimately chose to put the whole discussion on hold, and councilmembers decided that the new committee should not meet until the seats had been filled.
The item never came back to the council, the seats never got filled, and the committee never met again, thus dying a quiet death in bureaucratic limbo.