As San Ramon moves closer to overhauling its election system, city officials have invited residents to an informational meeting this week and learn about how the city will transition to district-based elections.
In response to a petition demanding the change while citing the California Voting Rights Act, the city has begun the process of transitioning from its current election system of at-large council elections to district-based voting. City officials are now seeking public input on how to best create four districts within the community.
“The City Council wants to ensure that every resident has the opportunity to participate in the transition to district elections and provide input on how the district maps are drawn,” said Mayor Bill Clarkson. “In addition to the four required public hearings on the issue, the City Council asked staff to hold a community meeting to answer question on the process so our residents could be prepared to participate in the development of districts this spring.”
Switching to district elections will mean residents only vote for the lone council member in their designated geographic region, as opposed to all residents choosing to vote from all council candidates at-large -- essentially meaning residents only vote for one candidate every four years, instead of each available council seat every two years as is the case under at-large voting
The mayoral position would still be voted upon at-large.
Prior to drawing up potential district lines, city officials will hold a series of meetings asking public input on where these districts should be located -- their goal being to create balanced areas that contain similar population, interests and concerns.
City staff have created an online information page full of facts and frequently asked questions for residents seeking to learn more about the process prior to the meeting.
The transition was first initiated when the city received a letter by attorney Scott Rafferty on behalf of the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative, requesting that the city do so, and threatening litigation if the council denied the request.
The organization's motivation, Rafferty said, was to avoid racially polarized voting, and give greater representation to San Ramon’s residents who are members of a protected class -- residents who are members of a race, color or language minority group.
“At-large voting dilutes minority electoral influence in the election of each of the legislative bodies in San Ramon Valley,” Rafferty wrote to the City Council. “Your councils and boards should consider this advice as an opportunity to engage the community in a collaborative process that avoids adversary litigation.”
In addition to San Ramon, the letter was sent jointly to the Danville Town Council, San Ramon Valley Unified School District, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District and Dublin San Ramon Services District.
Adopted in 2002, the California Voting Rights Act seeks to ban any election system “that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.” It further exposes agencies to litigation if they practice at-large, from-districts or mixed election system.
At previous City Council meetings, city leaders have expressed concern over the move as well as resentment, perceiving the petition as a demand letter the city has no choice but to accept.
“We are getting shoved into this and the worst part about it is we are being told to use a 10-year-old census, which makes no sense at all,” Councilman Dave Hudson said during the city’s Nov. 27 discussion on the issue, expressing a sentiment that was shared by his colleagues.
San Ramon could have challenged the petition in court, but according to city officials, would almost certainly would have lost.
“Those agencies that have attempted to defend their existing at-large electoral system in court have incurred significant legal costs because the CVRA gives plaintiffs the right to recover attorney's fees, but denies a city's ability to be reimbursed for its attorney's fees even if prevailing,” city officials wrote on their informational webpage.
To date, no California city has successfully defended their at-large election method, according to city attorney Martin Lysons.
Residents with specific questions are encouraged to email city staff at DistrictElections@SanRamon.ca.gov.
San Ramon residents are invited to the informational meeting which will be held 6 p.m. Jan. 29 at City Hall, 7000 Bollinger Canyon Road.