The Benicia City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night to keep its current election format in which the mayor and four councilmembers are elected by voters across the city.
City Attorney Benjamin Stock sought direction to see if the council desired to change its election format to district-based meaning each councilmember would represent a portion of the city and be elected by residents in that particular area.
“I think this is a very bad idea for the city,” councilman Steve Young said during the discussion about district-based elections. “I think there is no rational reason to move toward district elections. I would like to certainly wait until somebody make a persuasive argument that we’re in violation of the voter’s right act before we take some radical change that completely changes how we elect city councilmembers.”
In recent years, municipalities across the state, including Solano County, have received demand letters stating that the the at-large election method they use violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) because it “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.”
Stock said Benicia has yet to receive such a letter, but with the school district transitioning to district elections, he thought it was a good time to explore if the council wished to follow suit.
“The fact that we’re raising the issue now has more to do with the environment we find ourselves in with our neighboring jurisdictions having transitioned and our school district recently transitioned,” Stock told the council. “No one here is somehow endorsing the value of transitioning to a district-based election as somehow being a better form of an election system.”
He presented three options for the five-person council to consider: Immediately switch to district-based elections for the November 2020 elections, change to district-based elections following the 2020 Census, or not switch to district elections.
The city of Vallejo received such a demand letter in September 2018 from Southern California-based lawyer Kevin Shenkman, who argued the city’s at-large council election format violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) because there were no African American or Latino/a councilmembers.
The council eventually selected a new district map, which divides the city into six districts – with a councilmember in each district. The mayor will continue to be elected by the entire city.
Much of the discussion centered around costs to challenging a demand letter. By switching to district-based elections, Vallejo paid Shenkman $30,000. Other municipalities that have challenged Shenkman have all lost and have been forced to pay attorney’s fees in the millions.
Councilman Lionel Largaespada asked if the city council defend itself if it decided to fight a demand letter.
City Manager Lorie Tinfow said with a $44 million general fund, spending $1 million would be “a relatively large percentage of our total general fund budget.”
Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge, the lone ‘no’ vote, said she had some concerns about the city being exposed to a challenge letter without knowing the total costs.
She also said that she doesn’t support district elections, but Strawbridge noted that as an elected official she is required to uphold the law.
“If we’re disenfranchising anybody out there – I have a real concern about that,” she said.
Largaespada said he was “torn” about transitioning to district elections, while Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said the best defense Benicia could use is getting more information and not rush into anything for the 2020 election. Patterson further said she wasn’t convinced districts would solve any disenfranchisement issues.
The maker of the motion, longtime councilman Tom Campbell, said he wanted Benicia to connect with other cities, in size and demographics, to lobby the legislature about fighting the CVRA.
He admitted that Tuesday’s vote makes Benicia a target for a demand letter.
“For a city like Benicia is diverse but at the same time, it also doesn’t have these little sort of ghettos or barrios or whatever you want to say that would constitute something where we are disenfranchising some group,” Campbell added.