Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu civil rights attorney known for threatening to sue cities that hold at-large elections, has targeted Elk Grove.
Since the incorporation of the city of Elk Grove in 2000, voters have elected their City Council members across the city through the “at-large system,” opposed to the by-district system, in which council members are only elected by voters who live within their council districts.
In a letter Shenkman sent to the city last month, he wrote that Elk Grove’s elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, and that the at-large system results in the “impairment of minority groups.” Through that act, at-large elections are prohibited if they are determined to cause such impairment.
In the case of Elk Grove, Shenkman argued that the at-large system is “demonstrative of the Latino vote dilution” and causes the “inability of Latinos to elect their preferred candidate.”
Shenkman also mentioned that although 18 percent of Elk Grove’s population is Latino, there has not been a Latino person elected to the City Council for several years.
He claimed that the lack of diversity on the council “as perpetuated by the at-large election system,” further fuels the city’s racial tensions. The council currently consists of three Asians and two whites.
Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly, who became the nation’s first Hmong mayor in 2016, shared his opinion that Elk Grove should switch to the by-district election system.
“As the mayor, I see the benefits of by-district elections,” he said. “I’ve asked for it to be brought back to council for discussion, but I couldn’t get a consensus of the council to bring it back.
“Now, independent of this letter from this attorney, I think this letter now kicks it into the (city’s) legal department, and I should not comment on that particular letter. But in regard to by-district elections, I am in support of that.”
Shenkman told the Citizen last week that he sent his letter to the city after concerned citizens contacted him.
“Some citizens from Elk Grove contacted us,” he said. “They’ve been trying to get Elk Grove to bring its elections into compliance with the California Voting Rights Act for quite some time now to no avail.
“We took a look at the situation and it seemed pretty clear that there is a violation of (that) act in the city of Elk Grove. I sent off a letter to see what their reaction is.”
Among the citizens who have been attempting to have Elk Grove switch to by-district voting is Elk Grove resident Jim Kelly.
Kelly told the Citizen last week that the drive he led last year to collect 10,000 signatures – a prerequisite to getting the issue on an upcoming ballot – failed. He noted that he received significant verbal support, but little assistance in collecting signatures.
Among the Latino City Council candidates mentioned in Shenkman’s letter are Daniel Jimenez and Pat Perez. The letter notes that Jimenez had significant Latino support when he ran for the District 4 council seat in 2014, but lost.
However, Jimenez told the Citizen that he did not have Latino support when he ran for that seat.
He submitted the following comment: “I, Daniel J. Jimenez Jr., was named (in the letter) without my knowledge or consent. I do not support the assumptions, which were stated as facts in the document.”
Perez could not be reached for comment, as of press time. He was a former member of the then-Elk Grove Community Services District board and he now has an Elk Grove park named after him.
Former Council Member and Mayor Sophia Scherman, who was not named among the Latinos in the letter, said that she did not experience any difficulties as a Latina candidate.
“I had no problem,” she said. “I just got out there and did my thing, talked to the people, got them to know me, who I am. And me being a Latina never was an issue. The only time it became an issue was when they said, ‘First woman Latina mayor.’ And I never danced to that tune.”
Scherman also said that there are pros and cons to switching to by-district elections.
“(Through by-district) voting, the people in the district would know their council person one-on-one,” she said. “But by the same token, as a councilperson, I represented the entire city. There was no favoritism. There wasn’t, ‘Oh it’s in my district, so I’m not going to even help you get your bill passed,’ or whatever. It becomes territorial, and if I was on the council today, I would not support that at this time.”
Elk Grove School Board President Nancy Chaires Espinoza, who lost a close race to gain a council seat in 2014, stated her opinion regarding how the at-large election influenced that race. She ran against Jimenez and now-mayor, Steve Ly.
“I had strong support from Latino voters, and I do not believe the city’s electoral system was a factor in my defeat,” she said.
Cosumnes Community Services District Director Orlando Fuentes, who plans to run for the City Council’s District 4 seat this November, said that he hopes Shenkman will be successful in making by-district elections happen in Elk Grove.
“Hopefully the attorney will make convincing arguments back and forth, as to why the city should go to by-district elections,” he said.
Fuentes spoke on the difficulty for Latinos to get elected in Elk Grove.
“We’re 18 percent of the population,” he said. “You would think just by random numbers, we would have had more Latinos on the City Council. Just one more, two more, something like that to suggest that Latinos are able to get elected. So, Mr. Shenkman’s letter brings out an issue.”
Fuentes added that not many Latinos run in local elections.
“If we’re going to claim that we can’t get elected, we also have to run,” he said.
Amar Shergill of the American Sikh Public Affairs Association said that the city should make an immediate change to their voting system.
“Since no city has ever been successful in defending one of these lawsuits, the city of Elk Grove needs to make the change right away,” he said. “Not one penny should be spent defending a lawsuit that could costs taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Shergill added that the current system does not give citizens an equal voice in civic affairs.
Dennessa Atiles, co-chair of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Sacramento County chapter, also spoke against the at-large system.
“ACLU recognizes at-large voting as a civil liberties violation of the Voting Rights Act,” she said. “Representation matters, and by-district voting allows a community the opportunity to have their unique views represented in a manner that at-large voting does not afford.”
Luisa Menchaca, president of the Lorenzo Patino League of United Latin American Citizens Council 2862, also advocated for by-district elections.
“This is to achieve fair and equitable representation by elected officials that are accountable to their neighborhoods,” she said. “Once elected, all elected officials have the duty and opportunity to represent their districts and the entire jurisdiction.”
Asked whether he feels that African Americans or other non-white groups are disadvantaged through the current voting system, Shenkman said that is a possibility.
“It may be,” he said. “Our analysis is focused on Latinos, but Elk Grove has a number of pretty significant minority groups.”
Aliane Murphy-Hasan, who described herself as a 27-year African American resident of Elk Grove and a community activist, said she believes the at-large system affects black voters.
“The antiquated election system in Elk Grove in my opinion is in violation of the Voter Rights Act, because it dilutes the votes of the African American community and other minority groups, as well,” she said.
“Assembly Member Jim Cooper authored a bill that makes it simple for our City Council to make this change immediately, and avoids costly lawsuits.”
As for the next steps in Shenkman’s efforts to have Elk Grove move to by-district voting, he said that the city has 45 days from their reception of his letter to adopt a resolution stating its intent to transition to by-district elections.
“If they do that, then they have 90 days thereafter to draw the lines and adopt an ordinance establishing district elections,” he said. “If they don’t do any of that, then we sue them.”