AMPS Pulls Out of Voting Rights Lawsuit

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Advocates for Malibu Public Schools

Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) was a plaintiff in a voting rights lawsuit filed against the City of Santa Monica early last week that caused great concern in the city, causing district separation committee members to boycott a negotiation meeting scheduled for Thursday, April 14. Two days later, AMPS announced it had “acted hastily in its original decision to join the lawsuit,” officially pulling out. But it’s yet to be seen if irrevocable damage has already been done in the cause of separation.

The suit was filed for alleged violation of the California Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution. The lawsuit is an attempt to compel the City of Santa Monica to move to district-based, rather than at-large, elections.

AMPS was a plaintiff in the lawsuit, together with the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) and Santa Monica-based activist Maria Loya. Loya, a board member of the PNA, is married to school board member Oscar de la Torre.

The separation committee is made up of six members: Tom Larmore, Paul Silvern and Debbie Mulvaney of Santa Monica and Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal, AMPS COO Manel Sweetmore and Kevin Shenkman of Malibu. Shenkman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit, has since resigned from the negotiation committee. 

According to the suit, the City of Santa Monica used to have district-based elections but the system was “abandoned” in favor of at-large elections in 1946, when a charter was passed “purposefully to prevent non-Anglo Santa Monicans residing primarily around the south of what is now Interstate 10 from achieving representation in their local governments.”

The lawsuit evidently caught the Santa Monican committee members off guard.

“This lawsuit was filed by AMPS and Mr. Shenkman completely without warning, thereby materially impairing the collaborative nature of our discussions. In the spirit of collaboration, we should have been informed that this action was forthcoming,” Larmore said in a document prepared by the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD). “We are concerned that the inclusion of issues relating to the district and the participation of AMPS have no purpose other than to attempt to influence our negotiations. We view this as a serious matter and believe that no further meetings should be held until we have an opportunity to report to the board and receive direction from them.”

Shenkman, who resigned from the district separation committee on Monday, said that he didn’t think there was “any link whatsoever” between the suit against the City of Santa Monica and district separation negotiations.

Shenkman said the suit does not name the SMMUSD as a defendant, but rather is designed to give the district more power to change elections, should they choose to.

“If the plaintiffs are successful in the lawsuit, and the court finds, among other things, that [a 1946] charter provision is invalid because it was intended to discriminate against minorities, that would not change the SMMUSD system of elections,” Shenkman said. “It would leave a choice to the school district — a choice it doesn’t currently have.”

On the Santa Monica side, negotiators felt concerned about how the suit came about and what implications could have been.

“We couldn’t see any reason for including the district in that lawsuit — or at least having allegations in the lawsuit that related to the district — and asking for the court to declare the method of electing the board members to be invalid,” Larmore told The Malibu Times.