Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly was a longtime proponent of by-district elections. 

The Elk Grove City Council on Oct. 23 voted, 3-1, to change the way voters elect council members, beginning in 2020.

Vice Mayor Pat Hume cast the lone dissenting vote, and Council Member Stephanie Nguyen was absent from the meeting.

Under the new, “by-district” election system, 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 19-year-old system was called, “from-district.”

During the same evening, the City Council unanimously voted to use the current district map, which is based on existing 2010 census data. The council will thus wait for the 2020 census data to be released before selecting new district boundaries.

The council’s 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 them from getting candidates of their choice on the City Council.

Although Shenkman alleged that the city’s current 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, Hobbs noted.

Shenkman’s threat of litigation in the matter led Council Member Steve Detrick, on Oct. 9, to compare it to placing a gun to the heads of the council members.

In previous council meetings, Detrick and the other three council members expressed their support to retain the from-district system, while Mayor Steve Ly spoke in favor of the by-district system.

Detrick on Oct. 23 emphasized his belief that Shenkman’s letter was a “bully tactic.”

“You guys might not like the analogy of that this is being bullied,” he said. “I’m not specifically speaking about you folks (in the audience who support by-district voting). I’m talking about the attorney who’s behind this, using an unattended consequence of the law.

“It is the law. I totally understand that. It’s just unfortunate. I think everybody in this room has had circumstances they’ve probably been in their life where the law is not fair, and this is a prime example of that.”

Detrick added that he was disappointed that Nguyen could not participate in the vote on Elk Grove’s election system due to “some family issues.”

“(It is) very unfortunate,” he said.

Ly stressed a timely need to approve by-district voting for the city.

“I’m not in a position where I’m going to spend millions of dollars defending a lawsuit that’s going to fail, and I don’t want it hanged on my head,” he said. “And so, hey, if you want to do that, go right ahead, because it will become a campaign issue. I guarantee you that.”

The mayor also mentioned that he would rather spend millions of dollars on infrastructure for the community than to defend the from-district system.

In contrast, Hume defended the from-district system.

“I think the from-district creates the geographic diversity, so that the whole city is represented and there cannot be a concentration of council members living within a certain part of the city, but that the whole city gets to vote for every council member,” he said.

Hume also drew attention to Andres Ramos, who challenged him for his District 2 council seat in the 2018 general election.

“The local plaintiff in this case (Ramos) in the last election – sitting in the back of the room – won four precincts,” he said. “He prevailed in four precincts in the city. None of those precincts were within District 2, the district that he was in the race to win.

“And none of those precincts in which he won were in the area of concentration that has been identified by our demographer as the protected class in which he is seeking remedy.”

Prior to the council’s vote to approve by-district voting in city elections, several public speakers shared their feelings on the issue.

Local civil rights attorney Amar Shergill explained why he favored the by-district system over the previous voting system.

“Voters are never represented well when outside corporate money floods the election system,” he said. “Each of you takes thousands and thousands, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside forces that just don’t care about Elk Grove.

“So, it’s harder for people of color, the average person. It’s harder for the average woman to be elected when they can’t raise that kind of money, when they don’t make the choices you all have made in order to solicit those funds.”

Elk Grove resident Randy Bekker supported Detrick’s comment about feeling like he had a gun held to his head on the by-district issue.

“And for your comment, feeling like you have a gun held to your head, you’re goddamned right,” he said. “Make no mistake. This isn’t being done fairly, not fairly at all.”

Bekker also shared one of his concerns with the by-district system.

“Once we go to (the census data of) 2020 and districts are redistricted and new voters vote other councils in, their heart is going to be in their district, not in the city, and you will start to see what Sacramento deals with,” he said.

The transition to the by-district system of voting will not alter the sequence of the city’s elections. Council members will continue to be elected every four years.

Next November, voters in Districts 1 and 3 will decide who will represent them. Darren Suen currently represents District 1, while Detrick is the representative for District 3.

The by-district system does not affect the mayoral election, as the mayor will continue to be directly elected by voters across the city every two years.

The general election for the mayor’s seat and the Council District 1 and 3 seats will be held on Nov. 3, 2020.

District 1 covers the Laguna West, Stonelake, and western Laguna regions; and District 3 includes the Camden neighborhood, northern Laguna, and the Monterey Trail High School area.