Clarification, Nov. 13, 2017: Added information regarding law firm which submitted documents to the city of Ventura. 

In early September, CAUSE — the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy – notified the city of Ventura, through San Francisco-based Law Office of Robert Rubin, that its election system stands in violation of the California Voting Rights Act and that the nonprofit had plans to file a lawsuit should the issue not be addressed. At hand: CAUSE alleged that the city’s at-large voting system underrepresents minorities and in particular the city’s Westside, where no current council members reside.

As it stands, the city’s system to elect all seven council members is a free-for-all wherein the winners are those who receive the most votes citywide. Now, the city has chosen to switch to district elections, leaving four seats open for 2018, and residents are asked to submit ideas for consideration by Friday, Nov. 17. Every council member will need to reside in the district he or she represents, a move that CAUSE Ventura organizer Lucia Marquez calls “really exciting.”

Lucia Marquez

An example CAUSE points to is the 2016 election, wherein Latina candidate Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios received the highest share of votes on the city’s Westside, but was not elected by voters citywide, with Matt LaVere ranking as the top vote-getter. In 2013, African American candidate Lorrie Brown who was popular among Ventura’s Westside voters, but similarly was not elected citywide, as Erik Nasarenko received the highest number of votes throughout the rest of the city. Brown lived on the city’s Eastside at that time, however.

Marquez, though happy that the transition is coming, says that the reasoning she’s heard for the switch at town hall meetings misses the mark.

“I think the council has been looking at it from the perspective of ‘you know we need to move forward because our other option is going through a lawsuit,’ ” said Marquez. “I’d really like to see a little more acknowledgement that district elections are being presented to us because we need them, not because we’re forced to do them.”

Across Southern California, cities have been undergoing transitions from at-large to districts over the past few years, learning the futility of fighting challenges in court. In 2014, the city of Anaheim voted to settle a lawsuit and switch to districts, the first in Orange County to do so. In Lake Forest, a city in Orange County, the council voted to begin the transition to districts after City Attorney Matthew Richardson related that in 2012 the city of Palmdale attempted to fight a similar lawsuit, lost and was left with a $7 million bill, as reported by the OC Register.

In 2016, voters in Fullerton, Placentia and Costa Mesa voted for districts, and the cities of Buena Park and Garden Grove have begun the process as well.

Greg Diaz

Ventura City Attorney Greg Diaz is making the rounds across the city speaking on the subject. He will be the guest of the Democratic Club of Ventura on Sunday, Nov. 12, where he will discuss “New Districts for Ventura City Council Election: How and Why.” Diaz is the former city attorney for Merced, which went through a similar transition, though he left before the districts were finalized.

Diaz says that the city did look at transitioning to districts back in 2014, asking the charter committee to study the process, which in the end recommended the move. The council at the time decided against doing so, but in 2014, removed from the municipal code the requirement that the city have at-large elections making it easier to install districts, which would have required a citywide vote.

The downside, however, is that the city only has 90 days to conceptualize and adopt the districts, according to requirements laid out by the California Voting Rights act.

“Unfortunately, that 90 days includes Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. It has compacted our schedule but we’re confident we’re going to make it,” said Diaz.

By 2018, the districts will be set and four seats on the council will be up for election. Diaz says that criticism on why the city is transitioning now after a threat of litigation rather than before is unwarranted.

“I think that’s a little misleading to say that’s the only reason we’re doing it, and a little unfortunate that folks who haven’t been involved in the process as long missed the fact that we spent a year studying the pros and cons,” said Diaz. “There’s a case to be made on both sides — what benefits at large and what benefits districts. I think there are other options that do the same thing but those aren’t on the table.”

For Marquez, districts are what the city needs.

“I hear the argument right now that there are certain areas of town prioritized by the council and that have been for years and years and years,” said Marquez, alluding to the Westside’s thus-far fruitless effort to fund a community swimming pool on the Westside, which she says has been a 25-year endeavor, only to watch as the Eastside Aquatic Center was developed. “I think it’s something that historically has happened, and districts is one way to disperse the resources throughout the city.”

Residents have until Friday, Nov. 17, to draw and submit their own district maps for consideration. With seven districts in total, each should have between 14,548 and 16,080 residents, according to guidelines that can be found on the city’s website at Diaz will speak on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 1:30 p.m. at the IBEW Hall, 3994 E. Main St., in Ventura.