By Lyn Jensen, Carson Reporter
Carson is considering a switch from citywide elections to selection by geographic districts, but the initial response from residents was not positive. No one spoke in favor of the change during a public hearing at the May 21 city council meeting, but several residents opined against a system of by-district elections.
The loudest advocate for council districts was the year-old echo of attorney Kevin Shenkman, who threatened legal action for what he claims are violations of the California Voting Rights Act this past May. Shenkman has a history of suing cities and school boards on such grounds.
Public hearings regarding a by-district system for council elections are also scheduled for June 13 and June 18. After draft maps are drawn, at least two more public hearings are required, probably in late summer or early fall. An ordinance could be introduced in September, which would have to be submitted to voters, perhaps in November.
Since Carson is now a charter city, a move to council districts and by-district elections will require a charter amendment, which would also need to be submitted to voters, possibly in March 2020.
At the May 21 meeting, several residents spoke against changing to districts. None spoke in favor.
“We do have representation on the council,” said Faith Walton.
Robert Lesley compared the city’s actions regarding districts to the rush to become a charter city this past year. He recalled how a charter committee was formed to have input on creating a charter but he alleged the committee did not have any input on the charter in its final form.
Bill Koons said districts had pros and cons, and they would require council members to live in their district, and district elections could increase voter turnout at less cost. At the same time he warned districts could be gerrymandered to ensure certain persons got elected, and council members might consider “their own needs” over the needs of the city at large.
Last May, Carson received a letter from Shenkman which read, “voting within Carson is racially polarized, resulting in minority-vote dilution” and claimed he was representing Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a Latino voter participation organization.
Shenkman’s letter concluded, “Given the historical lack of Latino representation on the Carson City Council” that the council “voluntarily” change its at-large elections system or “we will be forced to seek judicial relief.”
Several cities have challenged Shenkman in court but none has been successful. Some have simply changed to districts rather than go to court after receiving one of his threatening letters.
As an example of alleged infringement of Latino voting rights, Shenkman claimed in 2016 Raul Murga was the “only Latino candidate” for council, and he lost.
In fact there was another candidate with a Spanish surname, Ramona Pimentel, a planning commissioner. She also lost.
Another example Shenkman asserts is, that in June 2015, Jesus-Alex Cainglet lost for council “despite garnering significant support from the local Latino community.” It does not cite any evidence for this assertion. Cainglet is Filipino-American, so Shenkman appears to not distinguish between the Latino and Filipino-American communities.
Neither does the letter mention Elito Santarina, who is Filipino-American with a Spanish surname and who served on the council, 2003-2018.
In a third allegation, Shenkman claimed that in March 2015 council candidates Margaret Hernandez and Elisa Gonzalez did not win despite “significant support from the Latino community.” Actually the two women’s vote total combined amounted to barely more than five percent. At the same time Santarina won.
One of Pimentel’s mailers during the 2016 election complained about lack of “geographic diversity” on the council.
During the 2018 election season Pimentel ran again and lost again. One of her mailers in that campaign blared, “Should Carson Switch to District Elections Like Everybody Else?” It added: “Carson has been threatened with a lawsuit which would cost the city millions unless districts are created to allow fair representation of all residents” and “Nearly 40 different people have been elected in Carson, but only two have ever lived in the South of Carson.”
The mailer didn’t define “South of Carson.” Former council members Santarina, Vera Robles DeWitt, John Calas and Kay Calas all lived or live south of the 405 freeway. So does current council member Jim Dear.
As for the other current council members, Mayor Albert Robles claims he lives in his parents’ Carson home south of the 405 freeway, but a Los Angeles Times investigation uncovered evidence that he may live in Los Angeles.
Lula Davis-Holmes, Cedric Hicks and Jawane Hilton — all African-American —live within a few miles of each other, north of the 405 freeway.