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Palmdale ordered to hold by-district election for City Council posts

Los Angeles County Superior Court judge had earlier found the city to be in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

December 02, 2013|By Jean Merl

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, who earlier this year found the city of Palmdale to be in violation of the California Voting Rights Act, has ordered the city to hold a new by-district election for its four City Council posts.

In a ruling dated last week and received by the involved parties over the weekend, Judge Mark V. Mooney ordered that the special election, to replace the balloting for council seats held last month, is to be conducted June 3, the same day as the California primary.

Future elections are to be held in November of even-numbered years, to dovetail with state and federal balloting, in the expectation that such coordination will increase voter turnout.

The judge allowed Palmdale to continue to elect its mayor by voters throughout the city. That means Mayor James Ledford's recent reelection will not be affected by the ruling.

A Palmdale official on Monday reaffirmed the city's intention to appeal the trial court's finding that the practice of electing council members at large, rather than by geographic district, deprives minorities of an opportunity to elect candidates they feel can best represent them.

"We're still analyzing the opinion and our options," Assistant City Atty. Noel Doran said Monday. "We've needed this ruling ... so we can appeal the entire matter."

As yet unclear is what, if any, effect a pending appellate court decision on whether to certify last month's election will have on the case.

The city's election system has been under attack since last year, when several minority residents filed suit claiming that the method of electing officials from across the city diluted their ability to participate in government. About two-thirds of residents are minorities, but voters had chosen only one Latino for office since its 1962 incorporation.

Last month, Palmdale elected its first African American council member, whose status, along with that of his three council colleagues, has been thrown into doubt by the court's edict. Mooney ruled that none of the current council members can serve past July 9, 2014, presumably allowing enough time for the special election to be conducted and the results certified.

The judge rejected the city's proposed new districts in favor of a plan offered by the plaintiffs, which will give the city two Latino-majority districts and another with substantial numbers of black and Latino residents.

"The current members of the Palmdale City Council were elected through an unlawful election," Mooney wrote. "The citizens of the city of Palmdale are entitled to have a council that truly represents all members of the community."

City officials have maintained throughout the court process that its election system does not hinder minorities. They blamed a lack of experience, community involvement or a viable campaign for minorities' failure to win office.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they were "generally pleased" with the ruling, although they had sought to create a fifth council district and have the mayor's post rotate among the members rather than elected separately.

"I think this is going to have a huge impact on Palmdale city government," plaintiffs' attorney Kevin I. Shenkman said.

Shenkman said he hopes other cities battling voting rights lawsuits "look at what has transpired in Palmdale and think better of it. It doesn't benefit anyone to carry on this sort of fight."

The ruling makes Palmdale the first California city to have its election system upended in court under the 12-year-old state Voting Rights Act. Many other local governments with significant minority populations but few or no minority representatives have switched voluntarily to elections by geographic district or have done so to settle lawsuits.

A handful of others, including Anaheim and Whittier, are facing trials after deciding to defend their practice of electing council members citywide.

jean.merl@latimes.com

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