City Threatened With Lawsuit Over Election System

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First thing on Monday morning—a little before the traditional start of business—the City of Malibu sent out an alert announcing a special meeting of the Malibu City Council would be held only 26 hours later, at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

The closed-door meeting was called for council to discuss various existing litigation, including a suit levied against the city by the Malibu Township Council and one the city filed against Southern California Edison over the Woolsey Fire. 

Also on the agenda was a new item—“Conference with Legal Counsel—Anticipated litigation” to discuss “significant exposure to litigation” as a result of a letter the city received on Oct. 25 from attorney Milton Grimes.

That letter, officially received by the city clerk’s office on Oct. 28, alleged the city’s election system violated the California Voting Rights Act, due to Malibu’s at-large voting.

“I write on behalf of our client, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and its members residing in the city of Malibu,” Grimes wrote. “The City of Malibu … relies upon an at-large election system for electing candidates to its City Council. Moreover, voting within the City of Malibu is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, and, therefore, the city’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.”

Grimes cited the fact no Latino resident has ever won a seat on Malibu City Council; in fact, none has run for city council election in Malibu. According to Grimes’ letter, that is due to Malibu’s at-large elections—where all council members are drawn from the general electorate and all voters select among the general pool of candidates—as creating a roadblock for Latino residents to gain representation.

Instead, Grimes requested the city switch to district-based elections, where each Malibu neighborhood would vote in one council member representing their neighborhood, not choose among candidates from across the city in one general election.

According to the letter, the 2010 census marked a citywide Latino population of 6.1 percent among Malibu’s approximately 13,000 residents—which “has almost certainly increased, based on statewide and local demographics trends.” 

It was not clear if Grimes had evidence of any single neighborhood in Malibu being comprised of a significantly higher percentage of Latino residents, or residents of any other racial minority. 

According to its website, Grimes’ client, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, “is the largest and oldest non-partisan Latino voter participation organization in the United States.” 

The issue of district-based city council elections was raised at a recent Malibu City Council meeting by Council Member Skylar Peak, though there was little interest among any council members at the time. Among those who spoke in favor of the measure—all of them representing neighborhoods on the eastern half of the city—race was not a factor in arguments toward district-based elections.

In fact, the idea of ethnically underrepresented neighborhoods in the city of Malibu—which the U.S. Census website estimates was about 88.6 percent non-Hispanic white as of its latest count—was joked about during that council meeting.

“We don’t have a barrio, OK?” Planning Commissioner John Mazza said at the time, to laughs.

On Tuesday morning, council met behind closed doors for about 45 minutes before returning, reporting no action had been taken that required a public report. 

In his letter, Grimes offered the city until Dec. 20 to determine whether or not they would pursue district-based voting, before his group would proceed with legal action.