PACIFIC GROVE — The city of Pacific Grove, hit by a letter calling for a more representative voting system, will become the youngest city on the Monterey Peninsula to consider switching from general to post-district elections.
The letter was written on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens District 12 and was received by the City of Pacific Grove on August 25. It alleges that the city should move toward district elections to avoid violating California’s voting rights law. If the city doesn’t take action to change its electoral process, the civic group threatens that it may seek legal aid “to enforce our legal remedies,” the letter said.
If the city of Pacific Grove decides to keep its voting system at large and defend itself against a looming lawsuit, it could cost millions of dollars in legal fees and court costs.
To weigh the city’s response, the Pacific Grove City Council will discuss the need for a legal review by not only city attorney Brian Pierik but also an outside law firm before issuing a response at its regular meeting on Wednesday.
“The agenda report is intended to clearly urge the city attorney to return to the council with an in-depth discussion of available options and possible steps forward,” Pacific Grove Mayor Bill Peake said by phone Thursday. “It also gives the City Attorney the opportunity to hire a California Voting Rights Act and District Attorney expert to assist in providing us with the best legal advice.”
The letter argues that as Pacific Grove continues to grow, moving to a district-by-district voting system would be in its best interests to ensure that minority groups are not thinned out of representation and that all voters have an equal opportunity to be elected officials to choose.
In general elections, political representatives are elected by a city’s entire voting bloc, while a district-based system divides voters by geographic region. For the past two decades, at-large systems have come under scrutiny from groups who have referred to the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which prohibits the use of an at-large vote when it is the ability of a protected class—members of a Race – color, or linguistic minority – would affect choosing candidates of their choice or influencing the outcome of an election.
“District elections have been shown to improve voter turnout and help governments respond to community concerns,” District 12 director Andrew Sandoval wrote in LULAC’s letter. “Districts are the cornerstones of our state and federal systems.”
More than 155 cities in California use by-county elections. In Monterey County, the cities of King City, Marina, and Salinas use district-based voting systems. In the past year, the cities of Greenfield and Monterey made the transition to county voting. Both locations are expected to operate under their new systems for the first time in November’s parliamentary elections.
Some local school districts are following a similar path, including Chualar Union, Santa Rita Union Elementary, Alisal Union, Salinas City Elementary — and Pacific Grove Unified, which will hold their first trustee elections in the fall.
Given the recent preference for elections by district, Peake said he was “personally expecting” the letter from LULAC.
“District elections have been held across the state for years, and in recent years we’ve seen them push south into Monterey County. … So no, it was not unexpected to receive the letter calling for county elections,” he continued.
Last December, the Pacific Grove City Council received a presentation from the then-City Attorney reviewing California’s Voting Rights Act and policies associated with moving to the electoral districts. Peake said “it wasn’t much of a discussion,” but more of a way for the city council to explain and draw attention to the voting by borough.
Nine months later – in the face of pressure from LULAC – the city has a tight schedule to draft its response and formulate a plan. Pursuant to the California Voting Rights Act, Pacific Grove has 45 days to respond to LULAC’s letter.
Next week’s meeting is the first step. When asked when the city’s attorney would return with guidance on how to proceed, Peake said, “We’re going to raise this issue on Wednesday,” but added that the city council can’t wait too long to make a decision meeting.
“The Council needs to decide which way to go, and pretty quickly,” he said.
While it is within Pacific Grove’s jurisdiction to defend itself against LULAC’s request, appealing against a challenge under the California Voting Right Act is a delicate – and costly – matter. Sandoval explained in LULAC’s letter to Pacific Grove that the “reality is that all of the public bodies that have litigated this matter have lost.” In addition, there is a provision in the California Voting Rights Act that if the lawsuit is successful, municipalities must pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.
Aside from the possibility of attorneys’ fees and court costs, the City of Pacific Grove needs to consider another factor in contemplating county elections, and that is the potential for a smaller City Council size in the near future.
In July, the Pacific Grove City Council voted 5-2 on a voting measure that, if passed in November, would increase the number of city council members from six to four over the course of two election cycles (through 2026). The point was raised in May by councilman Luke Coletti, who argued that a town with Pacific Grove’s population would be better served by a smaller council. A simple majority of the votes cast, or 50% plus one, is required for the measure to pass.
Should the municipal council cuts progress, a shift to borough elections would need to account for the fluctuating number of city council members until the downsizing is complete. Sandoval said via email Thursday that LULAC is willing to discuss the idea of pausing the voting process by district until Pacific Grove’s council is downsized.
Regardless, Sandoval and Peake and Coletti claim that a smaller council size is actually better suited to domain-based electrons.
Coletti said Thursday that when he addressed the downsizing in city council earlier this year, his agenda report considered moving at-large to the county.
“Should Pacific Grove be asked/ordered to move to district-based elections, a five-member council (four constituencies) would likely result in better implementation than a seven-member council (six constituencies),” the May report said.
“Six electoral districts is unwieldy and a nightmare for Pacific Grove,” added Coletti. “Shrinking the council would make us so much better prepared for district-based elections.”
Next week’s Pacific Grove City Council meeting begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The session can be viewed both in person at the Pacific Grove City Council chambers at 300 Forest Ave. and online at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/209579290. The chamber capacity is limited to 50 people and is allocated according to availability.