PALMDALE – The city is not ready to call it quits on maintaining its at-large elections – despite the fact that no California Voting Rights Act lawsuit has ever been successfully defended in the state.
Instead, Palmdale perceives the lawsuit as a passionate struggle to fight “interference by outside special interests.” So said Palmdale City Attorney Matthew Ditzhazy in a press release this week.
The press announcement appeared to be a public vow to never concede defeat. Instead, the city plans to appeal its ongoing voting rights case to the California Supreme Court, now that the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on May 28.
The May 28 judgement upholds Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney’s ruling from November 2013 that supports the plaintiffs’ assertion that Palmdale’s system of at-large council seats dilutes the influence of minority voters. The team of plaintiffs, spanning five law firms, includes attorney Kevin Shenkman, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, and V. Jesse Smith, president of the Antelope Valley chapter of the NAACP.
Seeking to change Palmdale’s elections to district-by-district voting, plaintiffs say the city’s at-large election system violates the state’s 2001 Voting Rights Act, which safeguards against the disenfranchisement of minorities.
Palmdale City Attorney Matthew Ditzhazy expressed both frustration and irony with the court’s ruling to invalidate the city’s Nov. 5 election, which would overturn the electorate’s decision to seat the city’s first African-American, Frederick Thompson, on the council.
“Certainly we are disappointed that the will of the voters, who elected the first African-American to the City Council, will not be honored at this time,” Ditzhazy said in a May 28 press statement.
The Palmdale City Council reacted to the ruling last Wednesday by voting unanimously to request the state Supreme Court to review its case.
More bad news followed when the city learned on Friday that it would have to pay the plaintiffs more than $3.5 million for fees and costs related to the voting rights lawsuit. However, city officials said the payout is pending based on the results of Palmdale’s appeal with the state appellate court.
Expressing outrage that the plaintiff’s attorneys were not satisfied with the award money from the lawsuit, Ditzhazy said it was apparent that greed was the true motive behind the lawsuit.
“After initially trying to grab over $5 million in fees, Parris apparently just wasn’t satisfied with the court’s opinion of the value of his services,” the city attorney said in a statement. “In any event, the City believes that ultimately it will prevail and that the recent award will be reduced to zero.”
Ditzhazy continued to argue that Palmdale’s status as a charter city empowers its constituents to decide the city’s own procedure for conducting elections.
“Under the California Constitution, a charter city has plenary authority over the manner and method of selecting its representatives,” said Ditzhazy, noting that “Palmdale voters spoke in 2001 by rejecting district-based voting and again in 2009 when enacting the City Charter and maintaining at-large elections. We believe the California Supreme Court will agree that the City’s current at-large election system is appropriate.”
Palmdale is nearly 60 percent Latino and 15 percent African-American, according to the latest Census report. However, only one Latino and one African-American have been elected to the Palmdale City Council since the 1970s.
After a study was requested by the Lancaster City Council to examine its own adherence to the California Voting Rights Act, the city’s Elections Committee determined that Lancaster was in compliance with state law regarding minority voting rights.
In a released statement from its Feb. 18 meeting, Lancaster’s Elections Committee announced that not only was Lancaster in compliance, but “where racially polarized voting may have existed in some prior elections, the candidate of choice of the minority group was elected.”
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