Category Archives: Fair elections

Times-Herald: Benicia City Council votes against district elections

Vallejo Times-Herald, by John Glidden, January 22, 2020

BENICIA — District elections won’t be coming to Benicia anytime soon.

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.

BREAKING: Benicia City Council votes to continue At-Large elections

By Roger Straw, January 22, 2020

4-1 vote: Young, Campbell, Largaespada and Patterson YES, Strawbridge NO

Late last night, Benicia resident Judi Sullivan reported:

“…For those who weren’t there or didn’t watch the vote, it was four to one to keep the ‘at large’ elections instead of switching to district ones mandated by the state for reasons not seen to apply to our population.
An additional caveat was added to this vote, which was to connect with other common cause cities in the state who have similar smaller populations and demographics which don’t fit the state’s mandated purpose for switching to district elections.
Public Comments were strongly in support of continuing with ‘at large’ elections.
City Council members Tom Campbell, Steve Young,  Lionel Largaespada and Mayor Elizabeth Patterson voted to uphold “at large” elections with Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge voting against this choice.”

The video of January 21 Council meeting, including citizen comments, Council discussion and vote can be viewed on video at the City of Benicia website.  [This item begins at minute 24:30 of the video.]

Citizen letters – At-Large elections are better for Benicia

By Roger Straw, January 21, 2020

On Tuesday January 21, Benicia’s City Council will consider a proposal to change our electoral process from At-Large voting for Council candidates to four newly-defined small geographical districts.

Benicia citizens are writing letters in opposition and planning to attend at Council.  [7pm at City Hall TONIGHTAgenda and staff reports here]

Here is a sample of recent excellent letters to Council:
  • Sherry Kelly – “I would like to voice my concerns based on my observations as a retired city clerk who has worked for over 30 years both in cities that elect their officials by district and at large and as someone who has been responsible for providing election services for these jurisdictions….” [MORE]
  • Attorney Terry Mollica – “I and many other Benician’s oppose the item referenced above because, as explained more fully below, there is no evidence of “racially polarized voting” within the City, as required by the California Voting Rights Act (“CYRA”) and, even if such evidence existed, adoption of “district-based elections” would not remedy the problem because of the demographics of the voters within the City…”[MORE]
  • Larnie Fox – “I am writing in opposition to any attempt to change Benicia’s voting system from “at large” to “by district”. This issue has been confusing, and the threat of possible lawsuits against the City appears to be serious. The arguments against such a switch are obvious. We are a small, homogeneous town with no known history of “racially polarized voting”, unlike the other towns that have been successfully sued. Our demographics are more like those of Huntington Beach ~ which has so far avoided a suit by responding vigorously to the initial threatening letter….” [MORE]
  • Marilyn Bardet – “While I agree and approve of the intent of the California Voting Rights Act, to protect against racial bias in elections, Benicia, being a small city, does not have the demographic profile nor voting history, as Terry’s research suggests, that would trigger such need to change to district elections….” [MORE]
  • Ralph Dennis – “The Council should vote NO to proceed with changing the election of council members from at-large to district-based elections. Benicia’s demographics, and the results of BUSD’s recent change to district elections for its Board members, demonstrate that (1) the conditions under the CA Voting Rights Act requiring such a change do not apply in Benicia, and (2) even if they did moving to district elections would not resolve the problem as the revised BUSD districts show.” [MORE]

My thoughts on possible District Voting in Benicia

By Roger Straw, January 17, 2020
Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

On Tuesday January 21, Benicia’s City Council will consider a proposal to change our electoral process from At-Large voting for Council candidates to four newly-defined small geographical districts.  Benicia citizens need to pay attention to this – it may sound ok, but consider…

I think our ability to join forces against the massive and mean-spirited outside corporate influences we saw in our 2018 election would be immeasurably weakened by adoption of district voting.

In 2018, a PAC funded by Valero Services and organized labor spent over $200,000 to smear and defeat Council candidate Kari Birdseye.  (See below for background.)  A similar campaign was waged against candidate Elizabeth Patterson in 2007.

A Council campaign funded and run in a small Benicia district would not be capable of standing up to limitless corporate PAC money.  And Benicia is way too small to be divided into four districts capable of finding and supporting multiple competitive candidates across the political spectrum.

In many cities, district voting makes sense as a measure to strengthen and empower concentrated minority groups.  Note that I am decidedly in FAVOR of empowering minority voting strength, especially when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities.  Most of us would agree.  But Benicia’s racial and ethnic mix is not concentrated in any linear district – so district voting would do absolutely nothing to advance minority voting strength.

What about other sub-groups in geographically defined parts of Benicia?

Our Southampton hills 1) is already represented by Mr. Largaespada, 2) could have elected Kari Birdseye as a Southampton neighbor if she hadn’t been targeted and smeared, and 3) had Mark Hughes as a resident Council member for years.  I’m guessing Southampton probably had a few more Council members going back before my time.

A case CAN probably be made that Benicia’s East Side has been underrepresented over the years – but district voting would create more problems than it would fix for Eastsiders.  IMPORTANT: How could an underfunded campaign in a smaller population on the East side possibly put up a fight against Valero and organized labor?!

CORRECTION: A kind reader has pointed out that current Council member Tom Campbell lives on Benicia’s East side.  Campbell and former Council member Jan Cox-Golovich live in a section of town north of Military and just EAST of an imaginary First Street dividing line.

MY CONCLUSION: District voting would only give outside big money greater strength to stack our City Council.

Your voice is important!


    • My background article on Jan 6, 2020 with quote from SF Chronicle, stating over $200,000 was spent by the Valero PAC.  My comment: “Kari ran for City Council in 2018 in a field of 4, competing for 2 seats on Council.  Only she didn’t just run against her opponents.  She ran against a $200,000-plus smear campaign orchestrated by Benicia Valero Refinery and its friends in organized labor.  The three major candidates’ campaigns spent less than $30,000 each, while Valero saturated our phone lines, mailboxes, newspapers and social media with misinformation and ugly photos.”
    • My post-election call on Nov 12 2018 for Council action to reform campaign spending – including comparison of the $200,000 with candidate spending of under $30,000 each.
    • My Oct 28 2018 article just before the Nov election which reported a smear campaign total of $155,000 as of that time. My  comment in that article: “News broke in late September that a major worldwide corporate power had bullied its way into our local democratic process.  Valero Services Inc., based in Texas but with 115 subsidiaries in Delaware, Michigan, Canada and several wealthy Caribbean nations, decided it wanted to buy a seat on the Benicia City Council. Their first strategy was to spend an unknown amount of money to employ two national firms, EMC Research and Research America, to conduct a nasty telephone “push poll,” blatantly mischaracterizing and demeaning one candidate for Council and painting rosy pictures of two others.  When our City Attorney challenged the polling firms, Valero Refinery executive Don Wilson admitted that Valero paid for the poll, but neither he nor the polling firms would comply with our demands for more information.”
    • Weekly and daily reporting of details as the smear campaign unfolded: