A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge has struck down an electoral redistricting map selected by the Morgan Hill City Council earlier this year, and ordered the body to choose a new map that complies with the law.
Judge Julie A. Emede issued the ruling after a May 9 hearing on a lawsuit brought against the city by former Mayor Steve Tate and three other Morgan Hill residents. The lawsuit alleged that the council redistricting map—known as “Map 103”—that was approved by the council March 2 was in violation of the California Fair Maps Act.
The judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that Map 103 does not meet the act’s requirement that council districts must be geographically contiguous, says the order posted May 11 on the Santa Clara County Superior Court website. Specifically, District D on Map 103 consists of two regions that are separated by a patch of unincorporated county land.
The order states that the council must “refrain from using Public Map 103 to conduct any elections for City Council.” The document is labeled a “proposed” order, and it is signed by attorneys representing the lawsuit plaintiffs and defendants; it is not yet signed by the judge.
Instead of picking a new redistricting map for Morgan Hill that complies with the law, the judge ordered the council to reconvene and make such a selection before May 23. On that date is scheduled a follow-up conference in court where the judge will confirm if the council’s new map complies with the law.
The council had previously considered multiple district map options that had been drafted by a consultant and members of the public.
Mayor Rich Constantine said the council is planning to consider its options in a closed session meeting scheduled for May 18. He said those options include appealing the May 9 decision or selecting a new redistricting map, but didn’t suggest which way he thinks the body should vote.
Constantine said he accepts the judge’s decision at the May 9 hearing. He noted that just days before Tate and the other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, a council majority had voted April 6 to accept Constantine’s motion to request a “validation action” asking the courts to rule on the legality of Map 103.
But Tate and the other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit April 11, before the city was able to complete the process for a validation action. City Attorney Don Larkin said at the April 6 meeting that he wasn’t aware if such an action could be taken on decisions related to redistricting.
“Knowing the city council voted to proceed with validation, I don’t know why the former mayor would sue us,” Constantine said May 13. “The outcome would have been the same, (and) whether Map 103 was proper would have been decided either way.”
Tate was joined by Swanee Edwards, and Brian and Kathy Sullivan in filing the Fair Maps Act lawsuit against the city. They are represented by attorney Christopher Skinnell.
The council initially approved Map 103 out of a choice of about half a dozen drafts on March 2. Skinnell sent the council a demand letter days later, urging them to reconsider their choice because Map 103 was in violation of the state redistricting law.
The council reconvened April 6, and voted again to select Map 103 with Constantine’s request for a validation action. The council voted 3-2 both times to approve Map 103, with Councilmembers John McKay and Gino Borgioli opposed.
Tate said the judge’s May 9 decision on the lawsuit is “what we expected.” He added he was surprised that the council voted again in April to adopt Map 103, even after being informed of its non-compliance.
In the months leading up to the council vote, Larkin and the city’s redistricting consultant—National Demographics Corporation—advised the council that Map 103 was illegal because it contained a district that was not geographically contiguous.
Map 103 was the draft most closely resembling the current council districts, which were selected in 2017. The California Fair Maps Act was passed by the legislature in 2019.
Attorney Armando Benavides led a public comment campaign supporting Map 103, arguing that it was the best choice to preserve certain “communities of interest”—another provision regulated by the Fair Maps Act. In March, Benavides threatened to sue the council if it did not select Map 103.
The city ultimately hired Benavides to defend the council against the Fair Maps Act lawsuit in court. Benavides did not return a phone call requesting comment on the May 9 hearing.
Larkin withdrew from the case because the lawsuit in large part reflected his previous advice to the council.
Cities with elective council districts—as well as other government bodies—are required by state and federal law to review their boundaries every 10 years based on changes in population and demographics presented in the U.S. Census.
Under Morgan Hill’s district system, voters within each of the four districts elect a single councilmember to represent them every four years. The city’s mayor is elected every two years by voters from throughout the city limits.
Up for election in November 2022 are councilmembers for Districts B and D. Under the current districts, these seats are represented by Councilmembers Yvonne Martinez Beltran and McKay, respectively.
The candidate qualifying period for November’s mayoral and council election begins in July.