City Council seats could be decided by district
May 7, 2013
Whether the enforcement of election laws intended to help prevent racism could actually hamper minority representation on the South Lake Tahoe City Council was a concern of some council members Tuesday.
The council is considering whether to change from an at-large format, where each of five members is elected by the city as a whole, to a district format, where candidates are required to reside in a specific area of the city.
The city's at-large election process exposes it to lawsuits under 2002's California Voting Rights Act, City Attorney Patrick Enright told the council Tuesday. South Lake Tahoe would receive protection from litigation under the CVRA if it created districts where council members were required to reside in order to be elected, Enright said.
Such a change would require voter approval. The council appointed members Angela Swanson and JoAnn Conner to further examine the issue.
“To not do anything now just invites us to be sued.”
South Lake Tahoe City Council
The CVRA, enacted in 2002, was intended to prevent local jurisdictions from using at-large elections to dilute the potential for a minority group to muster enough votes to be elected to a governing body.
South Lake Tahoe's Latino population, which accounts for 31.1 percent of residents, is considered a protected class under the CVRA, Enright said. Whether Latino residents could constitute a City Council district of more than 50 percent, what is known as a majority-minority district under the CVRA, requires further analysis, Enright said.
Councilwoman JoAnn Conner said she is concerned the law could actually encourage discrimination against a Latino candidate who has enough city-wide support to win election, but not enough support in their own district. Mayor Tom Davis said it is unclear what exactly the CVRA is trying to accomplish, adding he also thinks the law is polarizing.
But Councilman Hal Cole said he supported going to a district format. One of the benefits of districts would be to give distinct neighborhoods a more direct voice on the council, regardless of race, Cole said.
Several jurisdictions in the state have faced challenges to at-large elections. Some have been required to pay into the hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of dollars, Enright said.
"To not do anything now just invites us to be sued," Councilwoman Angela Swanson said.
Although the city does not keep statistics on the race of City Council candidates and members, the city has had little minority representation in its nearly 50-year history.
The CVRA does not require additional majority representation on the board as a result of a change to from-district elections. In some instances, changes to voting structures under the rules have resulted in additional representation by whites, Enright said.
He suggested the council should also consider going to a city-wide elected-mayor structure during discussions about complying with the CVRA. If the city creates an elected mayor position, the council would then have four, rather than five, council districts, Enright said.