Will District Elections Improve Representation in San Dimas?

Photos of past city councilmembers and mayors hang in the council chambers at San Dimas City Hall. Maria Livingston (then Maria Tortorelli) is the only woman who has ever been elected to San Dimas City Council, serving from 1984-1990. Photo illustration: Evan Solano

By Kara Roa

To date, San Dimas has only elected one woman or person of color to city council, according to city public records.

While the city’s demographics have experienced significant change over the past 60 years, its city council has not. 

Several candidates of diverse backgrounds have campaigned for a seat on city council, with only one woman, Maria Livingston (then Maria Tortorelli), serving on the council from 1984-1990.

Emma Ramirez, an 18-year resident of San Dimas, ran for city council twice, in 2017 and 2020. Ramirez believes that new representation and diversity are sorely needed.

“San Dimas is the old guard and very male-dominated, and I’ve just wanted change,” Ramirez said.

Emma Ramirez, an 18-year resident of San Dimas, ran for city council twice, in 2017 and 2020. Ramirez believes that new representation and diversity are sorely needed, though she is not convinced district elections will help.

San Dimas resident David Estrada also ran and lost in the last city council election. An active union representative since the 1970s, Estrada shares the same concern as Ramirez in terms of the lack of representation on city council. 

San Dimas’ absence of diversity on city council could end up costing the city and its residents.

City council weighs risk of at-large elections

At the April 13 San Dimas City Council meeting, the council voted unanimously to hire demographer National Demographics Corporation for fees not to exceed $36,000 to establish districts for future elections, which some believe will improve diversity and representation among elected officials.

The discussion to transition to districts began in March 2020, when the city was threatened with a pricey lawsuit.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman, representing the Southwest Voter Education Project, sent a letter to San Dimas alleging that the city is “abridging the rights of Latino voters” and that its at-large election format is a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. 

The decision to enter into an “intent to change” settlement agreement would change the format of local elections. 

Concerns over unfair elections have been a major part of the call for districts under CVRA. However, with districts, there is a risk of gerrymandering (arranging the city into election districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage in elections).

City Attorney Jeff Malawy cautioned city council members that the cost of entering into litigation was very risky financially. Palmdale, for instance, settled for over $4.5 million, and attorney’s fees were awarded in favor of Shenkman. The city of Santa Monica is the only city in 15 years that has won against Shenkman in the court of appeals. 

“The settlement agreement says that the city will pay the $30,000 to the plaintiff, and in exchange for that, the plaintiff will waive its right to sue or to file a lawsuit against the city until Dec. 31, 2021,” Malawy said during the Aug. 25, 2020, council meeting. 

Nearly all San Dimas city council members expressed frustration and condemnation at Shenkman’s claims that the city is violating CVRA and, in particular, that the sitting councilmembers are unable to represent the rights of all voters.

“I’m very disappointed, specifically, in Mr. Shenkman’s letter and his charge against this community. I think it’s baseless. I think it’s repulsive. And I just frankly don’t believe it fixes what the intent was of the California Voting Rights Act,” said Councilmember Ryan Vienna during the Aug. 25 meeting.

“I can tell you this council, as far as I’m concerned, looks at every corner and is considerate of every citizen, and I think that’s greatly appreciated by the entire city,” said Mayor Emmett Badar at the meeting.

Councilmember Denis Bertone expressed his frustration at the claim and being forced to make an immediate decision. 

“I think the public should know that at least one councilmember — and I think we all feel the same way — we’re not happy to do this, but we’re kind of forced into it,” Bertone said.

With a resolution passed on Sept. 8, 2020, the city council’s intent to switch to district elections included hiring a demographer to assist with the complex process.

Do district elections increase representation?

Shenkman has been suing cities, representing concerned residents and groups on the grounds that the outdated election system blocks minorities and persons of interest from being elected.

Shenkman argues that drawing district lines allows all parts of a community to be better represented. 

Councilmember John Ebiner failed to see the logic in Shenkman’s claim regarding Latino representation. 

“He’s basically saying that Latinos vote for, or only go for, Latinos. And anybody who’s not a Latino never votes for a Latino. That’s just stupid, completely stupid. And if you, if you do agree with that logic, then it really is a disservice to any Latino,” said Ebiner at the Aug. 25 meeting.

Shenkman clarified that the correlation between Latino representation and district elections requires an understanding of the difference between descriptive and substantive representation.

He defines descriptive representation as the presence of a person on the council identifying as Latino (or a member of any other minority group). He claims that what is more important is substantive representation, which is representation by someone (regardless of race) who is the preferred candidate of a minority group. 

Grouping of communities in cities is not too difficult, according to Shenkman.

“You try to group like communities together, and that way each community has some representation,” said Shenkman. “In most cities you have pretty well-defined neighborhoods that share interests.”

As a Latina woman, Ramirez does not agree that Shenkman’s lawsuit will solve the problem of lack of representation.

Ramirez said she was approached by Shenkman’s law firm to be named on the potential lawsuit and vehemently refused to participate because she believes that Shenkman’s efforts are detrimental.

“That works in LA because that’s 468 square miles. What’s the square footage of San Dimas?” Ramirez said. 

[At 15.43 square miles and with a population of 34,048, according to 2019 census data, San Dimas is much smaller than Los Angeles.] 

Ramirez said if the election is limited to districts, it could negatively affect her future campaigns because she could be assigned to a district with more established candidates or even be ineligible to run if there is no open seat in her district.

“I’ve worked so hard to get to this level. And I sit on committees. And I do this, and I go to meetings. And I think, ‘Is it all gone? Is it all gone because somebody wanted to make money off of San Dimas?’” Ramirez said.

Estrada, also Latino, believes that districts would help.

“I do believe it would benefit a Latino candidate, or any candidate of color would certainly benefit from this because it would level out the playing field,” Estrada said. 

Estrada estimated running for city council costs between $15,000 to $20,000 on the low end and shared that he was naive about the process and amount of money other candidates secured when running.

David Estrada, center, holds up a yard sign with supporters during his 2020 election campaign for a San Dimas City Council seat. Estrada said district elections would make it more economically accessible for future candidates to run. Photo courtesy: David Estrada

“You run throughout the entire city. And so that was incredibly expensive. If it had been district-wide, it would have been a lot more, a lot easier to manage. It would have been far more economically feasible for me and other people to run,” Estrada said.

What’s next for San Dimas leadership?

The only woman to have served on the city council, Maria Livingston, shared that her love of the city combined with encouragement from others empowered her to run. And she hopes to see more women on the council. 

“I hope women in San Dimas will look for opportunities to become involved, educate themselves about issues and run for office,” Livingston wrote in an email. 

A new mom at the time, Livingston described being respected by her fellow councilmembers and recalled her time on the council as an honor — especially being elected vice mayor two years into her term. 

Livingston is not sure why she has been the only woman councilmember since her run but believes that should change.

“I think women in leadership positions bring a unique perspective which is beneficial,” Livingston wrote.

City council still has the option to refuse to move to district elections and instead enter into litigation if the changes are not made before Jan. 1, 2022.

Shenkman maintained that suing cities to comply with CVRA is about obeying the law.

“I don’t need to change councilmembers’ minds. Changing their minds is much more difficult than forcing them to follow the law,” Shenkman said.

Correction: The original version of this article and accompanying graphic stated the city council passed a resolution of intent to switch to district elections on Sept. 8, 2020. The vote took place and resolution was passed on Aug. 25, 2020.

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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