Claim filed by Oakland-based law firm forces city’s hand

Published in the July 19 – August 1, 2017 issue of Gilroy Life

By Marty Cheek

Steve Rymer

To prevent a potentially costly lawsuit based on a claim the city of Morgan Hill violates the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, city council members voted June 7 to voluntarily transition elections for candidates to the council from “at-large,” or citywide, elections to district-bounded elections.

The process for the dramatic change in how residents starting November 2018 will select their representatives began when City Manager Steve Rymer received a letter sent May 2 from Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho, an Oakland-based law firm. The correspondence stated that Latino candidates do not win seats on Morgan Hill’s city council because the current system of the entire voting population electing all council members puts them at a disadvantage.

“We have received complaints from, and now represent, Latino citizens and voters of the City of Morgan Hill, as well as other members of your community, who believe the use of an at-large election system . . . results in vote dilution and prevents Latino voters from electing candidates of their choice or influencing the results of elections,” stated the letter.

By moving to district elections the city takes advantage of legal protection that enables cities to have a say in boundaries and avoid litigation, said City Attorney Donald Larkin. The protection applies only to cities that pass a resolution within 45 days of receiving a demand letter. The resolution must indicate the city’s intent to move to district elections and the plan to make the change.

In November 2018, council members Rich Constantine and Caitlin Robinett Jachimowicz’s seats will be up for election. Council members Larry Carr and Rene Spring will be up for election in 2020. The mayoral race will continue to be at-large, Larkin said.

The letter from the law firm stated: “We believe the lack of success of Latinos in gaining election and of Latino voters in selecting candidates of their choice results from racially polarized voting by the Morgan Hill electorate.”
The letter gave examples of several individuals they described as “Latino candidates” who lost in campaigns for city council seats. In 2010, they included Rick Moreno and Michael Castelan. (Castelan said he is not Latino.) In 2014, the letter described “one Spanish-surnamed candidate finished a distant last among the four candidates.” This was Joseph Carrillo who received 11.5 percent of the votes.

In 2016, the letter said, two Latino candidates finished last among five individuals for city council. These were Armando Benavides with 13.03 percent of the vote and Mario Banuelos with 11.63 percent of the vote.

The city encourages residents to provide input on drawing the lines for the four districts and has held several public hearings, which have not been well attended, Larkin said. A hearing where draft maps will be presented will be held July 26. Other public hearings will be held Aug. 23 and possibly Sept. 6.

“This is the opportunity for residents to define what their neighborhood is because the goal is to keep neighborhoods together,” Larkin said. “Morgan Hill, unlike other cities, does not have well-defined neighborhoods right now. I think this districting process is going to be what defines those neighborhoods.”

The city has been encouraging residents to go to www.drawmh.org and use the demographics tools to suggest possible district boundaries as well as make recommendations to city council members. The city also hired a demographer to work on the process of developing the boundaries.

The boundaries developed and approved by the city council will apply to the 2018 and 2020 election years and might change in following years based on results from the 2020 United States Census, Larkin said.

The transition is a controversial one many cities in California have faced. Some communities have paid millions of dollars in attorney fees after losing in court in resisting the transition.

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The city council expressed concern that Morgan Hill being forced to go to districts will significantly narrow the field of potential candidates in an election.

“Another concern is that residents outside of the district who may not be able to vote for the candidate of their choice will then contribute money into the campaigns,” Larkin said.

The job of creating a district based on demographic information that gives an advantage to candidates representing the Latino community will be a difficult one, Larkin said.

“The way Morgan Hill is developed, it’s going to be hard to draw any district that has a majority of Latino voters,” he said. “So it may or may not end up that we have more Latino representation.”