Elk Grove City Council Member Stephanie Nguyen on Nov. 13 voiced her disapproval of the city’s new voting system, which was approved by the council for the November 2020 election.
Nguyen, who was absent from the council’s Oct. 23 meeting when that approval was made, voiced her frustrations with both Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly’s support of the voting system and the process that led to that vote.
Nguyen spoke to Ly about comments that he made in the Oct. 23 meeting.
“Mr. Mayor, I watched the tapes and you talked about (how) this is the people’s seat,” she said. “And you are absolutely correct; the people should vote for each and every one of (these seats).”
With the council’s 3-1 approval of the “by-district” system last month, voters will only choose among candidates running in their local council districts.
In previous elections, council members were elected by voters across the city, and each member represented a council district. That system is called “from-district.”
Elk Grove’s mayors will still be elected by voters at large.
Although the council approved by-district for city elections, with the lone dissenting vote coming from Vice Mayor Pat Hume, Ly was the only member of the council to express longtime support of the approved system.
Ly continuously advocated for the by-district system, while the other council members wanted to keep the from-district system.
The council’s Oct. 23 vote on the voting system issue came as a result of a letter sent to the city by Kevin Shenkman, the Malibu civil rights attorney known for threatening to sue cities that do not hold by-district elections.
In his letter, Shenkman alleged that the city’s voting method results in the dilution of the Latino vote in Elk Grove and prevents Latinos from getting candidates of their choice on the City Council.
Although Shenkman alleged that the from-district voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, Elk Grove City Attorney Jonathan Hobbs said there was no finding that the city violated that act or any other law protecting residents’ right to vote.
However, if the city decided to engage in the process of defending its from-district system, such litigation could have cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees.
Two weeks prior to voting in favor of the by-district system, Council Member Steve Detrick expressed his frustration with the pressure to change to the by-district system.
“It’s not being done in a fair manner,” he said. “It is being done with a gun to our head, and that’s the part that I find very, very offensive.”
As the last step to move forward with by-district voting in Elk Grove, an ordinance was placed on the consent calendar for the Nov. 13 meeting. It called for members of the council to be elected through the by-district voting system, and for the city to use the current district boundaries map for the 2020 election.
However, upon Hume’s request, Ly pulled the by-district ordinance item from the consent calendar for a separate vote.
Prior to voting on the ordinance, Nguyen declared her continued support for the from-district voting system.
“(From-district) made sure that all the council members worked together as they represent the city,” she said.
Nguyen said that while she understands that the council has to move to the by-district system, she supported Detrick’s statement about being forced to change to by-district.
“As Council Member Detrick had said, ‘We do have a gun to our head,’ and this is bullying,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, because we have a lot of young people in this room, and I have a 9-year-old daughter, and I tell her to stand up to her bully.”
Because of the threatened lawsuit, she said, “we cannot stand up to this bully and we have to let the bully win. And this is very unfortunate.”
Nguyen criticized Ly’s stated desire to avoid having people appointed to council seats through a switch to the by-district system.
Both Nguyen and Council Member Darren Suen initially joined the council by appointments in the from-district system. The council made those appointments to avoid costly special elections following the departure of council members who did not finish their four-year terms on the council. Elections in the new by-district voting system are generally less costly than elections in the from-district system.
Nguyen spoke to Ly about his history of serving on the Elk Grove Unified School District’s board for two years before he announced his run for Elk Grove City Council in 2014. The school board appointed Nancy Chaires Espinoza to his Trustee Area 6 seat after he won the council race.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you left the (Elk Grove) school board in the middle of your term, which caused an appointment for the school board,” Nguyen said. “And you left the middle of this term here (on the council to be elected as mayor), which I went for, and I’m grateful for that (opportunity). But because of that, we had to do the appointments, right?
“You did cause two of the appointments that happened, not only in just this City Council, but also in the school board, as well, too. And since then, there haven’t been any other appointments in both the school (district) or the City Council.”
Ly responded to Nguyen’s comments.
“I hear what you’re saying, Council Member Nguyen, but this is not about me; it’s about empowering the people to rise up,” he said. “And I’m hearing your argument and I’m not saying it’s invalid, but the fact of the matter is it is a law.”