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Study Finds Fault in Election Method : Government: The city's at-large system of voting for council members could be vulnerable to a lawsuit on the grounds that it thwarts the influence of minorities.


SANTA MONICA — The year is 1946, and Santa Monica is in transition.

Its days as a quiet, turn-of-the-century beach village are long gone. Its emergence as a national beacon of progressive liberalism is far in the future.

What exists is a growing town whose minority population has risen by 69% during World War II, a trend much on the minds of the community's white--and increasingly wary--leadership.

That November, Santa Monicans reject a plan to elect City Council members from districts, a decision that essentially leaves the city's largest minority neighborhood without political representation. Instead, they adopt a system of at-large elections by which seven council members are chosen from throughout the city.

Now, almost a half century later, that vote is coming back to haunt Santa Monica, exposing one of America's most tolerant cities to the possibility of a costly discrimination suit and pitting the interests of the powerful citywide rent control lobby against those who argue for greater neighborhood representation.

A study by J. Morgan Kousser, a voting-rights expert retained by the city's Charter Review Commission, shows that Santa Monica's method of electing council members could be vulnerable to a legal challenge on the grounds that it was established to thwart the influence of minorities.

Kousser, a Caltech history professor, also warns that municipalities forced to defend themselves against complex specialized claims based on the federal Voting Rights Act are often required to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for outside legal help.

"Even if you win, it costs," he said.

Adding a sense of urgency to Kousser's historical diggings is the fact that while the council currently has one Latino member, Tony Vazquez, no one has ever been elected from the city's most racially diverse area, the Pico neighborhood.

"It's still a system arguably disadvantageous to minorities," Kousser said.

His findings are detailed in a 27-page report submitted to the 15-member Charter Review Commission, which is reviewing various aspects of the City Charter, including the electoral system, and is expected to present its finding to the City Council next month.

Kousser and city officials emphasize that the study, which relies heavily on back issues of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook (now known simply as The Outlook), is not meant as conclusive evidence that Santa Monica is violating the law.

The Outlook, said Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence, "is not the official government of the city of Santa Monica."

Nevertheless, Lawrence acknowledged that Kousser's findings raise questions. "It's not an insignificant thing he has told the charter commission," Lawrence said.

Federal courts have consistently overturned at-large systems that deprived minority candidates of a fair chance to win elections. In California, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down such a system in Watsonville in 1988, and in 1990 a federal judge ordered the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to redraw its districts on the grounds that the old boundaries illegally discriminated against Latinos.

In Santa Monica, the charter commission is in broad agreement that the current electoral system should be scrapped, but after a year of monthly and sometimes twice-monthly meetings, it has been unable to agree on an alternative.

In a recent straw vote, the commission backed the concept of proportional representation, a general description for any number of complex, at-large schemes that call for voters to rank candidates by order of preference.

For example, voters might be given a number of votes based on the number of open seats, then be free to distribute those votes to one or several candidates in any manner they wish. A system of election by council districts, though endorsed by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People as the most equitable means of giving minority neighborhoods a voice, has received the support of only five of 15 commission members, some of whom criticized their fellow panelists for failing to grasp the issue as one of basic fairness.

"I don't think any progress has been made to convince . . . people that district elections are the way to go," said Commissioner Stephen Alpert, a proponent of districts. "I feel very disenchanted."

Herman Rosenstein, another commissioner who advocates district elections, said such a system would reduce the impact of citywide slates, force candidates to respond to a broad range of neighborhood concerns and reduce the cost of running for office.

But City Council members--five of whom are backed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, the city's powerful rent control organization--seem generally reluctant to embrace districts, Mayor Ken Genser and Councilman Vazquez being the exceptions.

"I would stand the most to lose from all this," Vazquez said, "but the issue is to set up an institution for neighborhoods to be able to elect local representation."

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