A newly unveiled settlement from a costly, years-long lawsuit will lock Santa Clara city elections into six voting districts moving forward—as long as the voters agree.
The seven-person Santa Clara City Council unanimously approved the agreement Tuesday during a closed-door meeting. The agreement gives the minority residents and organizations who sued the city in December 2017 for violating the California Voting Rights Act what they've been pushing for from the start: a system in which residents vote for a councilor to represent one of six parts of the city, rather than every resident voting on every council candidate, known as “at-large” voting.
The plaintiffs argued the city’s at-large method of electing officials diluted its Asian American residents’ votes in council elections. Their argument won over a Santa Clara County Superior Court in 2018 and three California Appeals Court Judges last December. Elected officials decided not to appeal again, a decision that marked the beginning of the end to a 70-year practice of at-large voting, which is outlined in the city's charter, first adopted in 1951.
All told, the lawsuit cost the city of Santa Clara $4.55 million paid to the plaintiffs, Doyle said Tuesday. About $3.8 million has already been paid to the groups represented by three law firms, including the Asian Law Alliance. A final check for $712,500 will be issued to cover the remaining costs for the plaintiffs, according to Doyle.
Tuesday’s settlement requires the Santa Clara City Council to formally call for a vote by residents on the issue on or before June 1. Residents would cast their ballot to approve or decline future elections with six-districts sometime after that date. Doyle said that timeline will give the city plenty of time to get everything organized to amend the city's charter ahead of the November 2022 election.
The vote, if it favors six districts, would solidify that 2018 and 2020 elections that were held with those districts were correct, legal and will continue for the foreseeable future. That would put to rest the contentious debate between councilors over whether the voting system can be legally changed without a vote by residents.
Councilman Raj Chahal and the newly elected councilors, Anthony Becker, Suds Jain and Kevin Park, each have said they support six districts and believe the change could be implemented by ordinance, as other California cities have done in the past.
But other city officials, including Mayor Lisa Gillmor, City Attorney Brian Doyle and former council members who opposed the judge’s initial 2018 ruling, argued such a change required a vote of the people to legally amend the city’s charter.
That set in motion a process with council-appointed committees tasked with recommending how many districts the city should have. The recommendations that came out of those committees led to two failed ballot measures: Measure A in 2018 that recommended two districts; and Measure C in 2020, which asked voters to decide whether they wanted three districts in the city.
Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance, said he confident a six-district proposal will pass, in part because the council unanimously agreed on the decision and because voters have not been amenable to a smaller number of districts in past elections.
Doyle confirmed neither the city nor its elected officials are allowed to write an argument against the ballot measure in any official capacity.
Konda says he sees the settlement as a beaming civil rights victory.
“The right to vote is the most fundamental right in our democracy,” Konda said in a statement Tuesday. “The elimination of the discriminatory at-large system removes a significant barrier to the meaningful participation of Asian Americans in the city of Santa Clara’s election system.”
Councilmember Raj Chahal agreed, pointing to how the judgement has already brought three Asian minority council members on the city council: Jain, Park and himself.
“I am glad this is over and, finally, Santa Clara has abided with the CVRA and settled this unnecessary lawsuit,” Chahal said. “Santa Clara tax payers have lost more than $6 million because of this lawsuit, I wish we had done it better and saved these much needed city funds."
Councilmember Anthony Becker said while this politics-ridden issue could have been resolved a long time ago, he's not going to ruminate on who's to blame.
“I don't think we should point fingers at the ones who supported the appeal of the six districts," Becker said. "Now they’re on board, and I think this is a great opportunity for us to work together.”
Neither City Attorney Doyle nor Mayor Gillmor were available for comment.