In a new critique of how minorities are treated in the Antelope Valley, a judge has ruled that Palmdale violated state voting laws by maintaining an election system that hampered the ability of Latinos and blacks to win office.
The judge's findings come a month after the U.S. Justice Department accused Palmdale, Lancaster and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department of a systematic effort to discriminate against minorities who received low-income subsidized housing. Federal officials said deputies conducted widespread unlawful searches of homes, performed improper detentions and used unreasonable force that specifically targeted blacks and Latinos.
The Palmdale voting rights case has been watched closely by minority activists in the Antelope Valley. V. Jesse Smith, president of the Antelope Valley Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, lauded the judge's decision.
"A lot of us [minorities] have been locked out of the process," said Smith, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Palmdale City Council in 2009. "There's a great deal of the old boys' club there."
In an opinion released this week, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney concluded that Palmdale's at-large voting system violated state law because the city has "racially polarized voting" and minorities have less influence over the outcomes of elections.
Palmdale is 54.4% Latino and nearly 15% black, yet it has elected only one Latino City Council member and never a black council member in its history, said plaintiff Juan Jauregui's attorney, R. Rex Parris.
Parris and others argue that minorities would have a better shot at being elected if Palmdale were divided into council districts.
Parris is also the mayor of neighboring Lancaster, which also holds at-large, or citywide, elections. But voters in Lancaster have elected multiple black and Latino council members.
Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said the city plans to appeal the decision. He called the lawsuit a "money grab" by outsiders and trial lawyers trying to meddle in the community. The California Voting Rights Act, he said, is "poorly written" and unfairly holds cities responsible for the choices of their voters and the quality of their candidates.
"This is not a voter rights lawsuit. This is not about black or white, it's about green," Ledford said.
About 15 to 20 cities, school districts and other government entities have been sued under the California Voting Rights Act since the law was enacted in 2002, according to Robert Rubin, an attorney who helped write the act and is representing the American Civil Liberties Union in an ongoing lawsuit over Anaheim's election system. The act forbids the use of at-large elections to dilute the power of minority voters.
The Palmdale case is the first that has been decided at trial. All the previous cases have settled, some after protracted — and expensive — battles.
The city of Modesto appealed the constitutionality of California's voting rights law to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. In the end, the city settled a voting rights case against it for $3 million and switched to by-district elections.
The city of Compton fought a voting rights case filed in 2010 by a group of Latino residents for more than a year before agreeing to a settlement under which the city put a measure on the ballot asking voters whether they wanted to switch to by-district elections. Voters approved the measure, and the city's first Latino councilman was elected last month.
Rubin, who also represented the plaintiffs in the Modesto case, said Palmdale's loss at trial may send a signal to other agencies to voluntarily adopt by-district elections or risk facing expensive lawsuits.
Often, said Rod Pacheco, a former Riverside County district attorney who now specializes in voting rights cases, elected officials appeared to be trying to drag out the case despite knowing that they probably would lose and that taxpayers would be stuck with the bill.
"The City Council of Palmdale, which made the decision to fight this and expend those funds, didn't spend their own money," Pacheco said. Officials often seem primarily concerned about hanging on to their jobs, he said: "The tack that many of these cities take is to get to the next election."
Ledford said he has endorsed multiple black and Latino candidates for Palmdale's City Council over the years and "can't explain" why the council does not reflect the diversity of the population.
"We go for the best and the brightest," Ledford said. "I can't speak for the message of the candidates or their ability to raise the funds to run."
He also said Parris seems to have a personal vendetta against Palmdale — an accusation Parris denies.
Henry Hearns became the first black elected official in the Antelope Valley when he won a seat on Lancaster's City Council in 1990, and he recalls receiving death threats during the campaign. He said the city of Palmdale should do everything it can to give blacks and Latinos a fair opportunity to be elected.
"I would hope that that the citizenry in Palmdale would not just elect anyone based on race or culture," Hearns said. "I would hope that they would vote for the most qualified candidate."