Diversity on the dais

Attorneys warn city of Chico: Switch to district elections or prepare to be sued

The Chico City Council is being challenged to change to district elections under the allegation that its current system oppresses minority votes.

The Chico City Council is being challenged to change to district elections under the allegation that its current system oppresses minority votes.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

It’s clear to Mercedes Macías just by looking across the dais that the Chico City Council does not adequately represent its community.

“They’re all white people or people benefiting from light-skinned privilege,” she said. “What we need are different shades of our human family being represented in our government.”

Macías, who self-identifies as an “indigenous person of color” and ran for council in 2016, said the city’s current at-large election system is “functioning perfectly well … to serve the upper classes, which have historically been light-skinned people.”

She is one of several former City Council candidates mentioned in two demand letters sent to the City Council this month, each warning the city to switch to district elections or prepare for expensive lawsuits.

The issue at hand: voter representation. The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA) prohibits the use of at-large elections if they impair the ability of minority populations to elect candidates or influence election outcomes. Since its adoption nearly 20 years ago, more than 80 cities have started using districts—many did so after receiving demand letters.

Two attorneys, Matt Rexroad (a former Yolo County supervisor) and Malibu-based Kevin Shenkman, allege that Chico is in violation of the CVRA because election data show that voting in Chico is racially polarized, and its at-large elections dilute minority votes. They cited election history: Macías was included in a list of candidates who lost “despite significant support from the Latino community,” Shenkman wrote.

“You end up with a city that doesn’t have adequate representation because of its demographics,” Shenkman told the CN&R by phone. “I wouldn’t suggest that anyone in the city of Chico intends that to be the result. I think more often than not, in California at large, this has just kind of been the default.”

Shenkman sent the letter on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), a nonpartisan Latino voter participation organization founded in the 1970s. Since 2012, Shenkman has been challenging at-large elections across the state, and estimates he has sued about a dozen jurisdictions—mostly cities, some school districts and one community college district. In his first case, against Palmdale, the city spent millions fighting the suit only to lose and have to pay Shenkman’s fees (a stipulation of the CVRA). Earlier this year, the same story played out in Santa Monica. So far, Shenkman has not lost a case.

These are “taxpayer dollars which could have been more appropriately spent on indispensable municipal services and critical infrastructure improvements,” Shenkman wrote.

Chico Mayor Randall Stone says he’s familiar with the impact these lawsuits have had elsewhere and the city is “absolutely taking it seriously.” Whether the council decides to move to districts, put the issue before the voters or fight it remains to be seen.

Stone, whose maternal grandparents came to the U.S. from Mexico, self-identifies as the first Latino mayor of Chico. He said both letters were inaccurate: Each claim that the council is made up of seven non-Hispanic whites, and the city has a historical lack of representation of Latinos. U.S. Census data from 2010 show that 15.4 percent of Chico’s population is Hispanic or Latino. More recent data, from the Census’ American Community Survey, pegs the number at 17.7 percent.

“Their statistics and their citations do not match the reality in this community, period,” Stone said. “It’s not unknown that there’s a Latino council member.”

Shenkman acknowledged that’s where the issue gets tricky and sensitive—council members are “entitled to identify however they want, but that doesn’t necessarily change the way that the electorate views them or understands them to be,” he told the CN&R. And his firm has found that in Chico elections “there is a significant difference in the levels of support for candidates who the electorate would almost certainly understand to be Latino.”

This isn’t the first time the city of Chico has been asked to consider districts. In 2015, Ken Fleming and Robert Speer, co-directors of nonpartisan organization Districts for Chico, advocated for the switch. Their argument: Districts will create a more representative government that will improve efficiency and increase the chances of minority members and political independents getting elected.

“We have a situation where if you’re running for City Council, there are a number of barriers,” Fleming said. They include campaign costs—with districts, Fleming argues, it’s more about knowing your neighbors rather than “how many big-buck contributors you can put together.”

Fleming said Districts for Chico easily gathered support from the community—it was the elected officials who proved hard to sway. Their campaign was stonewalled by the City Council in 2015—it wasn’t even agendized for discussion. When the topic resurfaced in 2018, it again went nowhere.

Stone, who voted against considering districts in both instances, said he still isn’t sold on the concept. He makes the same argument, but from the other side of the coin: Districts, not at-large elections, dilute groups and make it harder to elect minority candidates.

“We’re perfectly heterogeneous; we have no specific ethnic enclaves in the city of Chico,” he said. “If we don’t have that dispersion of voters, what are districts going to help with?”

Fleming and Speer (who is a former editor-in-chief of the CN&R) both expected Chico would end up in this predicament.

“The city is out of compliance, and even if they weren’t, it’s just not worth the money and the hassle to fight it,” Fleming said. “They just need to get on with this and not drag their feet.”