The fight over drawing political maps for City Council districts is just beginning to take shape in Burbank.
The complex process, which will establish such areas for the first time in Burbank, is already facing scrutiny by councilmembers, community residents and others with a stake in the game.
The transition from the current “at large” voting system to an arrangement with five or six districts was forced upon the council after the city received a notice in August of a potential violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The letter sent on behalf of a Burbank voter, Nick Gutierrez, included a demand that the city change its at-large voting system to a by-district approach.
The council had little choice but to comply, as Burbank technically operates in violation of the CVRA by electing councilmembers at large instead of by district. The council voted unanimously in January to issue a resolution of intent to change to by-district elections, triggering a 90-day “safe harbor” period to forestall litigation.
“Doing this under threat of lawsuit is not the right way to do it,” Mayor Konstantine Anthony said Tuesday during a public hearing on creating districts.
In a by-district electoral system, the city is divided into geographical areas of equal population and only the voters residing in each sector may vote for the candidates for City Council for that district. In addition, the candidates must be residents and voters in that district. In Burbank’s at-large system, all voters in the city are entitled to vote for any candidates running for City Council.
Gutierrez’s letter also asserted that there is a racially polarized voting system in Burbank that prevents Latinos from being elected.
Marguerite Leoni, a redistricting expert with whom the city has contracted, contended that Burbank would likely defeat that claim in court. “For the election of minorities, Burbank has a positive history, and that would come to the fore for the city in litigation,” Leoni said.
The city so far has chosen to avoid challenging the CVRA through litigation, instead choosing to comply with its requirements to draw districts. District elections are being implemented throughout California. According to the law firm Radcliff Mayes, author of the letter to the City Council on Gutierrez’s behalf, no government agency in California has successfully defended a complaint alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
“The California Voting Rights Act presumes that any system other than districts is suspect, so that’s the battle the city is facing,” said City Attorney Joe McDougall, who said Santa Monica is fighting a similar districting lawsuit in the California Supreme Court and has paid more than $6 million in legal fees.
If Burbank were to choose to fight a CVRA lawsuit, legal fees would come out of the city’s general fund, and there would be no guarantee that the city wouldn’t be sued again.
Though city leaders and members of the public largely agreed that no reformation of Burbank’s democratic system is the preferred option, divisions formed over how to proceed now that districting is a sure thing.
The prevailing philosophy is that the city be broken into five voting districts, with one councilmember allocated to each district, dissolving the role of mayor in Burbank. Others endorsed having a “weak mayor” who would sit on the council but hold a largely ceremonial role outside of the council chambers.
One speaker, Andre Dionysian, suggested that Burbank form three districts with two members each, and include a weak mayor elected at large.
“The benefit of this is, in case one district gets a representative they don’t like, they get another chance by offsetting the election years. There’s a balance, sort of like a junior and senior senator,” Dionysian said. “Any kind of decision where you’re touching the fundamental nature of democracy, you don’t want to leave that up to chance. It should weather the storm.”
In the coming months, Burbank residents will be able to submit drawings of their own proposed maps by employing easy-to-use tools provided by National Demographics Corp., the city’s contracted demographer. A final map is due to be approved by the City Council in June.
“Because of this big suit of tools, the goal here is to make every resident of the city a commissioner. It is not quite the same as an independent commission where the council is totally out of the process, but it’s darn close,” said Douglas Johnson, a spokesperson for NDC.
Meanwhile, the city will host a series of public meetings to ensure residents understand state rules aimed at preventing the dilution of the political power of minorities and other communities of interest.
First published in the March 18 print issue of the Burbank Leader.