City Transitions to District Elections with Resident Participation in the Process

On Oct. 12 and 26, San Dimas City Council will hold public hearings at City Hall regarding the process of transitioning to district elections by 2022. The city made the decision to change the election process after attorney Kevin Shenkman threatened to sue the city in 2020, alleging that the city’s at-large elections violates the California Voting Rights Act. Photo: Danielle De Luna

By Eric Nakano

No matter how you slice it, San Dimas residents will soon see the biggest change to city council elections in more than forty years.

Under the proposed plan, San Dimas will be divided into four districts by June 7, 2022, when voters residing in each district will elect a member to represent them on city council.

The last change to city elections occurred in 1979 when San Dimas residents passed a measure to elect the mayor directly instead of leaving the mayor’s selection up to the city council. 

Currently, voters elect all members of the city council at-large, which means residents cast votes for all councilmembers regardless of where they live in the city. Residents will continue to elect the mayor at-large. 

The city council unanimously voted to move to districts and enter into a settlement agreement with attorney Kevin Shenkman at a council meeting on Aug. 25, 2020. Shenkman threatened to sue the city on behalf of an unnamed San Dimas resident and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan Latino voter registration group, alleging that the city’s at-large elections of city councilmembers violates the California Voting Rights Act.

Shenkman has sued several cities in California over the same issue, including Santa Monica, Rancho Cucamonga, West Covina and Palmdale. All of the cities he has sued have lost in court, with the exception of Santa Monica, whose case remains unresolved. 

San Dimas agreed to pay $30,000 to Shenkman and transition to district elections by June 7, 2022, to avoid going to court. In order for the transition to happen, the city must submit district maps no later than Dec. 9, 2021, to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.

Although the city council was unanimous in its opposition to transitioning to districts in the absence of the lawsuit, some members seemed willing to accept the changes and the possibility that it could increase representation on the city council. The council has only had one woman and no people of color on it since its inception.

“While I dislike being threatened to be sued by someone like Shenkman, who is basically an opportunist and gets our $30,000 for not suing us, there is a problem that may be solved by districts,” said Councilmember John Ebiner at the Aug. 11 city council meeting.

Reactions from residents were more mixed, with many residents expressing support for the city moving to districts. 

Long-time San Dimas resident Cori Robertson was initially against the idea of districts, but she now supports the change because she thinks districts can help mobilize and draw attention to parts of the city that are traditionally overlooked.

“I’ve read about other cities that are doing things this way, and I feel more comfortable with it,” Robertson said.

She also believes district elections will allow new candidates to be elected.

“Historically, the people who have the money are the people who get elected. I don’t agree with that because I think there are a lot of people who care a lot who could be better for a city, even if they’re not privileged that way.”

Another San Dimas resident, Betty-Jean Lamb, who emailed the city council in favor of districts, is hopeful that districts would allow for more diversity on the council.

“I also hope with district representation that more people will be able to come forward and put their hat into the ring & actually get onto council & bring new ideas in the process,” Lamb wrote in a follow-up email to the San Dimas Community Post. “I also feel that women & other minorities are not only underrepresented in the city but are not represented in the city at all. I would like to see a lot more diversity in type & life experiences of our representatives on city council.”

Other residents have been concerned with how the city might draw the new districts.

Byron Brummer, who has lived in San Dimas for five years, is hesitant about moving to district elections. Worried about the possibility of gerrymandering, Brummer said he favors using a computer program to generate a map.

“In order for things to be fair, I think you’d really have to take the ‘human’ element out of dividing the districts. A computer program would take the population density, overlay what proportions you need and divide it up fairly into contiguous areas,” Brummer said.

Under California law, San Dimas is required to hold four public hearings and invite the public to submit proposed maps prior to finalizing district lines. The city council hired National Demographics Corporation to assist in the effort and held its first and second public hearings during scheduled city council meetings on Aug. 10 and Aug. 24.

At the hearings, Jeff Simonetti, a consultant with National Demographics Corporation,  explained that the districting process must comply with both the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. These laws prohibit the drawing of district lines to dilute the votes of protected class voters, or voters who have faced disenfranchisement in the past, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Latino Americans.

California law also states that districts should not divide communities of interest, have easily identifiable boundaries, be compact and not favor or discriminate against a political party. 

When drawing districts, Simonetti said the city council and San Dimas residents should ask if a neighborhood or community should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation or if it could benefit from having multiple representatives.

“This is the feedback we’re looking for from the city council as well as the general public,” Simonetti said at the Aug. 24 meeting.

Simonetti said possible communities and neighborhoods include the downtown or civic center of San Dimas, special zone areas, homeowners associations, private communities and business improvement districts. The public is encouraged to submit draft district maps in October before the council votes on district boundaries in November. 

This process will start after the city council receives the U.S. Census data, selects the mapping software and holds a public tutorial on how to use the software.

Simonetti shared the proposed timeline:

  • Before Oct. 12: City will select mapping software from a private vendor.
  • Oct. 12: Third public hearing on districting and tutorial on how to use mapping software will take place.
  • Oct. 12-25: General public can submit proposed maps using the mapping software.
  • Oct. 26: Fourth and final public hearing on districting will take place.
  • Nov. 9: City council will vote on district maps.
  • By Dec. 9: City must submit district map to LA County Registrar.

Additionally, a Zoom Community Workshop: How to use the Mapping Tools is scheduled for Oct. 20, according to the city website.

Members of the public do not have to be residents of San Dimas to submit a proposed map, and individuals can submit more than one map. Simonetti also noted that the city council and staff are strongly discouraged from submitting maps of their own for consideration. 

Simonetti emphasized the importance of the public playing a part in the process.

“Our view is that it is really up to the general public for the policy choice as to how they want to draw those maps,” Simonetti said during the Aug. 10 meeting.  

Melanie Henson contributed to this story.

Disclaimer: Isabel Ebiner, managing editor for the San Dimas Community Post and daughter-in-law of Councilmember John Ebiner, edited this story for AP Style.


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