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Appeals court says Palmdale must do away with at-large elections

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Appellate court rules Palmdale is subject to state Voting Rights Act
Palmdale is one of several cities sued over their at-large elections systems

An appeals court on Wednesday dealt Palmdale a double blow in a long-running battle over the way its city officials are elected.

The court rejected Palmdale's contention that, as a charter city, it is not subject to the California Voting Rights Act — a ruling with implications for Whittier and other cities being sued over alleged voting-rights violations.

The three-member panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal also upheld a trial court's ban on certifying the results of the city's Nov. 5, 2013, municipal election.

Attorneys for the city and the plaintiffs disagreed over the effect the ban would have on city operations.

Kevin I. Shenkman, the lead plaintiff's attorney, said that unless the election is certified, the city will not have a functioning City Council after July 9. That was a deadline set by the trial judge last year when he ordered a new election that conformed with the Voting Rights Act.

Palmdale spokesman John Mlynar said the city's attorneys do not believe the appeals court ruling prevents the current City Council from continuing to serve until the case is resolved. The city's appeal of new voting districts has not yet been heard.

Palmdale is one of several cities and other local jurisdictions that were sued over their at-large elections systems.

Plaintiffs have argued that such systems undermine minority voters' opportunity to elect a representative of their choice. They have demonstrated patterns of racially polarized voting.

Several cities, including Anaheim and Compton, have settled such lawsuits by agreeing to ask voters for permission to elect officials by geographic districts.

Several community college, school district and other local governmental bodies have changed voluntarily to by-district elections rather than spend taxpayer money to fight a lawsuit. No court has sided with the defendant jurisdictions in such cases.

Palmdale has battled the suit brought against it by three minority residents and has appealed trial court decisions that have gone against it.

"They really brought this on themselves," Shenkman said of Palmdale's growing legal bills acquired by fighting the switch to districts despite various court cases upholding the Voting Rights Act.

Another plaintiff's attorney, Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris, applauded the appeals court ruling.

"The citizens of the city of Palmdale are entitled to have a council that truly represents all members of the community," Parris said.

Blacks and Latinos comprise a majority of the city's residents but, with two exceptions since the city's 1967 incorporation, have been unable to elect a minority candidate.

Mayor James Ledford has said the city does not discriminate against minority voters and has suggested the plaintiff's attorneys are more interested in earning legal fees than in social justice.

Mlynar said the city will discuss the ruling and its options during a closed session on June 4.

jean.merl@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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