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Palmdale continues lonely fight against Voting Rights Act

Antelope Valley city has racked up big legal bills fighting to keep at-large system of electing officials

Across California, cities, school districts, even water boards are scrambling to comply with the state's Voting Rights Act and settle costly lawsuits, or avoid them altogether.

Palmdale is an exception.

Leaders in the Antelope Valley city have lost court battles and racked up big legal bills fighting to keep their system of electing officials, which a trial court last year ruled violates minority voters' rights. An appeals court recently agreed with the trial judge on some points, and now the city is asking the state Supreme Court to step in.

"I think every city in California needs to wake up. … We should all unite instead of folding," Palmdale Mayor James Ledford said. He repeated his view that the lawsuits are "nothing but a money grab" by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

The city has reported spending $1.5 million on private attorneys and recently was ordered to pay nearly $3.6 million in plaintiffs' lawyers fees. The plaintiffs successfully argued that Palmdale's at-large balloting violates the California Voting Rights Act because it deprives minorities of the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.

The lawsuit echoed others filed in jurisdictions with large minority populations but few or no minorities on their elected governing boards. All a plaintiff needs to do, experts on the 12-year-old law say, is demonstrate that racially polarized voting exists. That can be done with election results that show contrasting outcomes between predominantly minority precincts and white ones.

Jurisdictions that can't demonstrate fair treatment of minorities in at-large election systems must pay the plaintiffs' attorney fees.

Most local governments that settled suits over the Voting Rights Act did so by agreeing to elect council members by geographic districts, giving voters in minority areas a better opportunity to put a representative of their choosing in office.

Though geographic districts aren't a perfect solution, they do enable minorities who have been shut out of political office an opportunity to elect at least a single representative and have a voice on a board, proponents say.

Critics say switching to geographic districts undermines voters' ability to weigh in on candidates across a city or school district and that it doesn't help when minority residents are spread throughout a city.

Santa Clarita took a different approach earlier this year, agreeing to use "cumulative voting," which allows voters to cast all their allotted choices for one candidate.

If three City Council seats are on the ballot, for example, someone could cast one vote for three candidates or put two or three toward just one candidate. Soon after, the Santa Clarita Community College District agreed to switch to cumulative voting to settle a separate lawsuit.

Palmdale's is the first case to be decided at trial. Many others have settled, sometimes only after protracted legal battles. Voters in Whittier, for example, recently agreed to switch to district elections; a hearing on the city's request to dismiss the suit against it is scheduled for Sept. 5.

Critics say Palmdale is wasting taxpayers' money on a fight it can't win and courting bigger trouble by not putting its election system in order.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney ruled almost a year ago that the city was violating the Voting Rights Act and later ordered that elections be held under a new system.

The city has said it will appeal Mooney's entire decision later this summer. In the meantime, it held its regular November election under the at-large system and appealed Mooney's order not to certify the results.

The appeals court rejected Palmdale's argument that as a charter city, it is not subject to the Voting Rights Act. It also upheld Mooney's order on not certifying the election. The city recently asked the state's high court to reverse both rulings.

Critics of the city's stance say its failure to heed the court rulings leaves Palmdale operating without a legally constituted government. Mooney ruled that officials elected under the at-large system could not serve past July 9. Palmdale critics are circulating petitions to ask the governor to appoint a commission to conduct a new election.

None of this has deterred Ledford, the mayor, who said he and the City Council are united in their resolve to continue the fight.

He cited the principle of local control and noted that voters twice approved the at-large elections system. He also disagrees that polarized voting — which both sides in the case agreed exists in Palmdale — is the reason that only two minority members have been elected to the council since the city's 1962 incorporation. (Latinos comprise nearly 55% of the city's population of 157,000 and blacks make up almost 15%, according to 2013 Census Bureau estimates.)

Former planning commissioner Frederick Thompson, an African American who, with Ledford's and other officials' support, won a council seat in the disputed November election, defended the city in a recent newspaper opinion piece.

"I resent any implication that this community is racist," Thompson wrote. "We sometimes have complicated relationships in this city, but there is not a concerted effort to keep minority groups down."

Plaintiffs disagreed, citing many instances of minority residents who ran for office but could not win. Voting patterns showed "Latinos and African Americans are locked out of the political system," Kevin I. Shenkman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said upon filing suit in early 2013.

But it is another plaintiffs attorney, R. Rex Parris, who draws the most criticism from Ledford. He called Parris — the mayor of neighboring Lancaster, Palmdale's longtime rival — "a predator" and noted that Lancaster elects its own council members at large.

"How can you do the same thing and claim your neighboring city is wrong?" Ledford asked rhetorically.

Parris said Lancaster has a better track record of electing minorities and shows little evidence of racially polarized voting. Still, he said he would like to change to district elections but doesn't have the votes to do so.

More to the point, Parris said, is the refusal of Palmdale officials to comply with the law.

"Palmdale has always had a small-town mentality and power has always rested in the hands of the few," Parris said. Switching to strict elections "would break that up."

The city's continuing fight, Parris said, is "a horrible abuse of power."

jean.merl@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeanmerl

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