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Mayor's Message Martinez

Jan 02, 2018 02:53PM ● By Rob Schroder

Martinez was established in 1849 and has been the county seat of Contra Costa County since California became a state. The city was incorporated in 1876, making it one of the oldest established incorporated cities in the county. In the 142 years since the first city council election, city council members (or trustees as they were initially called) were elected at large by the entire voting population.

For a century, the position of mayor has been chosen by the five sitting council members and was generally rotated between the council members every year. In 1976, an initiative was placed before the voters, asking them if they would like to choose their mayor or if the council should continue with the rotational process. Overwhelmingly, 78% of the voters said they wanted to choose their mayor, and from that time on Martinez has had a directly elected mayor. Over the years, other cities have placed the question of an elected or rotating mayor before their voters, and they have always chosen to elect their mayor and discard the rotational method.

The question of moving toward district-based elections has now been forced upon Martinez and several other cities, schools, and special districts throughout California, primarily by a Malibu attorney that has been very successful in making a handsome living by exploiting the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). This out-of-town attorney has made millions of dollars at the expense of cities and schools.

The CVRA was enacted in 2002 and took effect on January 1, 2003, to help minority candidates for local governmental offices secure elected offices and, therefore, provide better representation to those minority communities. The remedy in the CVRA to alleviate the impairment of the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or influence the outcome of elections is to move to district-wide elections. There is no requirement to show actual discrimination or vote dilution against a protected class, just that there could be discrimination or vote dilution.

Martinez has a Hispanic population of around 13%, with Asian Pacific Islander at 9%, African American at 3%, and white at 74%, with no specific neighborhoods having a high concentration of protected classes. The neighborhoods in Martinez are very homogeneous, with all races living together throughout the city. With these demographics, it is hard to see how district elections will benefit any protected class.

No city or school district in California has successfully won a lawsuit fighting district-wide elections. Palmdale is the poster child, unsuccessfully defending its at-large elections and paying out $4.5 million. The city of Modesto paid $1.7 million to its attorneys and an additional $3 million to plaintiffs’ attorneys. Anaheim paid out $1.2 million in settlement long before the trial was to begin.

In any event, under the threat of bankrupting the city, the city council agreed to start the process to move toward district elections. This will allow the city to take advantage of the “Safe Harbor” legislation (AB350) that took effect on January 1, 2017. This reform to the CVRA caps the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and expenses to $30,000 as long as we complete the process of establishing district-wide elections within 135 days of receiving a demand letter to do so. In the case of Martinez, we expect to spend upwards of an additional $150,000 on attorney and consultant fees to set up those districts.

It is hard for me to see how moving to district elections is going to benefit Martinez’ protected classes and the overall city of Martinez at a cost of almost $200,000, which could be used to hire another police officer or pave streets. It is unfortunate that the citizens of Martinez have no say if this is the direction they wish proceed and that the city council is being forced to adopt district elections with a fiduciary gun to its collective head by a Malibu attorney. Without some reform of this law, every city, school, and special district will be forced to do the same over the next months and years.