A judge's halting of Palmdale's November election could have implications for other cities facing lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney on Monday canceled the election after earlier finding that Palmdale's at-large method of choosing council members deprived minority voters of the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.
Officials plan to appeal, with City Atty. Matthew Ditzhazy calling the ruling "wildly unprecedented and radical." Some voters already have been sent mail-in ballots, he said.
Activists seeking minority representation on city councils, school boards and other governmental bodies have been pushing for by-district elections throughout California. Ethnically diverse jurisdictions that hold at-large elections and have few, if any, minority officeholders are especially vulnerable under state law, experts said.
Whittier also is being sued under the decade-old Voting Rights Act. Officials there have called a June special election to ask voters whether it should switch to balloting by district — but the city's scheduled April municipal election will be under at-large voting rules.
Mooney had ruled that Palmdale's at-large election system undermined opportunities for its minority residents to choose someone they believe would best represent their interests. And on Monday he granted the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction to stop the election.
The judge said the plaintiffs, three Palmdale residents, "as well as the general public, would be irreparably harmed" if the city held an election Nov. 5 "or at any time before this court proscribes the permanent relief contemplated" in the July decision.
Palmdale, whose population is roughly two-thirds minority, has elected only one Latino and no blacks to its council since incorporating in August 1962.
Canceling the election would cause "the voters of this city of 154,000 people to be potentially silenced," officials said in a statement released in response to Monday's ruling.
"There has never been a reported case in California where a Superior Court judge has enjoined a regularly scheduled election five weeks before people are scheduled to go to the polls," Ditzhazy said.
He noted that three of the four candidates vying for two council seats are minorities, meaning that at least one minority would be elected.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs said Palmdale had had plenty of notice that its elections system was likely to be overturned.
"For far too long already, the African American and Latino citizens of Palmdale have been disenfranchised," said plaintiffs' attorney R. Rex Parris, who also is mayor of neighboring Lancaster.
"No longer should they be forced to wait for their rights while the city thumbs its nose at the law," Parris said.
Rod Pacheco, an attorney for activists suing Whittier, said Tuesday that the ruling canceling Palmdale's election bodes well for his clients, who want new rules in place for the April election. He disputed Ditzhazy's contention that the ruling was unprecedented.
"What's unusual is that they would try to proceed" with the election after the July ruling, Pacheco said.
Whittier officials had no immediate comment.