San Mateo County voters last November brought an end to the practice of having candidates for county supervisor run countywide instead of in their districts alone. Now, in settling a lawsuit brought by six county citizens in 2011 -- three of Asian ethnicity and three of Latino -- the county Board of Supervisors has agreed to consider a redrawing the five district boundaries to comply with state and federal voting rights laws, particularly with respect to minority representation on the board.
A nine-member committee, with membership to be vetted by the League of Women Voters and approved by the board, will hold public meetings around the county in coming months to "receive community input as to where the boundaries of each district should be placed," according to a statement by county spokesman Marshall Wilson announcing the settlement Wednesday (Feb. 20).
The committee's recommendations to the supervisors will reflect the opinion of the community and that of a professional familiar with district-boundary issues "to ensure that the integrity of neighborhoods and communities of interests are protected," the statement said.
The supervisors are set to decide on the new boundaries at their Oct. 8, 2013, meeting; the new districts should be in place for the June 2014 supervisory elections, when supervisors Carole Groom and Don Horsley would be up for re-election.
Asked if the settlement talks left anything to be desired on the part of the plaintiffs, attorney Robert Rubin replied: "Yeah, I would have liked it to have been done two years ago, or 12 years ago when the voting rights act passed. It should not have taken 12 years and a lawsuit for the county to comply with state law."
In settling the lawsuit, the defendants agreed to pay about $650,000 in attorneys fees for the plaintiffs, Mr. Wilson said in an email. Other expenses for the litigation include about $400,000 for the services of San Francisco law firm Kerr & Wagstaffe and about $100,000 in internal legal costs for the services provided by the office of the County Counsel.
The defendants hired private counsel because "we had to balance the current workload of our attorneys with the time needed to defend the county, as well as the expertise needed in that area of law," Mr. Wilson said.
Racially polarized elections
The lawsuit, led in part by San Francisco-based attorney Robert Rubin for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, alleged racially polarized voting led to voters among the Asian and Latino communities being "routinely ignored and marginalized by the majority," according to the complaint.
Latinos and Asians now comprise around 50 percent of the county's population, but since 1995, the board has had just one Latino representative and no one from the Asian community, the complaint says. "San Mateo (County's) electorate votes in a racially polarized manner, with the numerical superiority of the rest of the registered electorate consistently defeating the electoral preferences of Latino and Asian voters," the complaint says.
The plaintiffs asked for the end of at-large (countywide) voting for each supervisor and a new voting system to remedy violations of state and federal voting rights acts. The success of Measure B took care of the first issue; re-drawn boundaries are intended to address the second. The plaintiffs were Ray Satorre, Bradley Roxas, Johanna Sandoval, Joseph Otayde, Mario C. Panoringan and Violeta Ortega, all county residents.
Defendants in the case were the five members of the Board of Supervisors and Mark Church, the county's chief elections officer and the assessor and county clerk-recorder.
Attorneys representing the supervisors argued that the board enjoyed "home rule," referring to a concept that allows a local government to "pass policies and enact practices that differ from federal law," Mr. Rubin said. "They argued that they could ignore state law. We felt that an issue like discrimination against minority voters was a sufficiently compelling interest (to justify suing)."
"I think it's fair to say that (the defendants) are not too cocky at this point in the litigation," Mr. Rubin added. "A home rule charter county doesn't trump state law."
The board "did insist on retaining its power" to approve the committee membership and approve the new district boundaries, Mr. Rubin said, but added: "We're confident they will listen to the committee and our consultants and approve the (new) lines. ... Section 2 of the California Voting Rights Act, we think, is a sufficient check on any shenanigans."
The Almanac has not yet had a chance to talk with attorneys representing the defendants.