In the middle of a widely watched court battle over its system for choosing officials, the city of Palmdale elected its first African American councilman Tuesday.
Retired college administrator Fred Thompson won one of two City Council seats on the ballot. But it will be up to an appellate court to determine whether the election is legitimate.
Activists recently won a lawsuit that said the city's at-large method of electing officials violates the California Voting Rights Act, citing as evidence that the minorities who make up much of Palmdale's population have been largely unable to elect one of their own due to racially polarized voting. They are pressing for council members to be elected by geographic district.
It was unclear Wednesday what effect Thompson's victory might have on the lawsuit. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney granted the plaintiffs' request to halt the election. The 2nd District Court of Appeal allowed the election to proceed but said it would determine after the balloting whether to certify the results.
Also, Mooney is preparing to issue his remedy for the election system. City officials have said they will appeal the case once the trial judge completes his work.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs cite the trial judge's "clarification" of the injunction in contending that the ballots should not have been counted.
"That violates Judge Mooney's order," Eric Rose, a spokesman for the plaintiffs' attorneys, said Wednesday.
"The trial court has determined that the election is/was illegal," Rose said in a statement, adding, "The appellate court will decide … whether the trial court was correct in its rulings."
Palmdale Mayor James Ledford said Thompson's 20-year tenure as an elected member of the Palmdale School District board, as well as his victory Tuesday, underscored the city's contention that the lawsuit was without merit.
"I don't think [racially polarized voting] exists here," Ledford said Wednesday. He also said he believes that Thompson's election will help the city's case when it appeals Mooney's findings.
Ledford repeated his view that the lawsuit was "not about voting rights" but about "plaintiffs' attorneys shaking down cities for cash" from legal fees.
Thompson, a city planning commissioner who had the backing of Ledford and several other civic leaders, was only the second minority to win election since the city's 1962 incorporation. (The first was a Latino who is no longer on the council.) Thompson could not be reached for immediate comment Wednesday.
Ledford and Councilman Tom Lackey were reelected Tuesday but technically cannot be seated for their new terms until the appellate court acts. Both sides expect that won't happen for several weeks.
The Palmdale case is being watched in other jurisdictions that are being sued, including the cities of Whittier and Anaheim.