Santa Clara loses fight over district elections
Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Santa Clara lost a bid to overturn a lawsuit forcing it to hold district elections after the city was sued for allegedly violating the California Voting Rights Act.

City officials appealed the decision in 2019, despite previous unsuccessful efforts from other cities in similar California Voting Rights Act cases. But an appeals court Dec. 30 dismissed the appeal.

The city held an election earlier this year to ask voters if it should cut the number of districts in half, from six to three. Voters responded with a resounding “no,” with more than 60% rejecting the measure.

“(The court’s decision) is a long time coming, and it should have taken place way back,” said Councilmember Raj Chahal. “By dismissing the appeal, the court has protected minority rights.”

In its 70-year history, Santa Clara had never elected an Asian American to the City Council. Then, in the 2018 and 2020 elections, using districts, three of the six candidates elected to the council were Asian American: Chahal, Kevin Park and Suds Jain.

Before the lawsuit by five Asian American residents, the city held at-large elections, where one lawmaker is elected to represent the entire city.

Chahal said the Measure C decision showed residents want the city to continue to have districts, and that efforts to continue to reduce the number of districts would be irresponsible.

“I can not understand why we wasted more than $5 million of our resident money on this lawsuit (plus staff time),” Chahal said. “Maybe because some politicians wanted to keep their majority on the council, with an election system which was flawed as per (the California Voting Rights Act).”

The city spent about $5 million in legal fees on the case, and about $250,000 on Measure C as well as the similar failed Measure A in 2018.

“I feel bad that poor judgement calls at the city leadership level have cost our residents millions of dollars, which could have been used for providing much needed services to our community,” Chahal said.

 

The 49ers praised the court’s decision. The team was part of a committee that opposed Measure C, and contributed more than $300,000 to get residents to vote no. The team’s owner, Jed York, added an additional $330,000 to the campaign to defeat the measure.

“Today’s ruling is the regrettable – but predictable – fallout of costly litigation launched by Mayor (Lisa) Gillmor and City Attorney (Brian) Doyle to retain political power and diminish the voting rights of minorities,” said Rahul Chandhok, a spokesman for the 49ers. “Their misguided policies and incompetent legal advice have cost the citizens of Santa Clara millions of dollars in legal fees and damages.”

The team has been at odds for years with Gillmor and councilmembers aligned with her, often exchanging fiery words over the Measure C effort and Levi’s Stadium management.

Gillmor and Santa Clara city officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The first time the city had a chance to change to a district-representation system was 2011, when a charter review committee made the recommendation to switch to an at-large election. No change was enacted then.

Richard Konda of the Asian Law Alliance, a nonprofit that was part of the prosecuting team, said the district system is crucial to racial equity.

“The long history of discrimination against Asian Americans on a national, state and local level exacerbates structural barriers to their political participation, like the at-large election system in Santa Clara,” Konda said. “The California Voting Rights Act’s protections are crucial to ensure that Asian Americans and all other groups have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and meaningfully participate in California’s political process in their local governments.”

Chahal said California law already provides an easy way to finalize the six districts by ordinance — a method more than 20 other California cities, including Palm Springs and Roseville, have used to create their district systems.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese.

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