In the most recent development in Burbank’s districting debate, the City Council vowed this week, before a concerned audience at City Hall Tuesday, that they would not approve an electoral system that dilutes the vote of protected classes, also noting that the panel may ultimately choose to maintain the current at-large voting system or another election format.
The transition from the current at-large voting system to an arrangement with five City Council districts was forced upon the panel 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 voting system to a by-district approach.
The CVRA allows voters of a protected class — a class of voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group — to sue California cities with at-large systems if they feel the existing system prohibits them from electing candidates of their choice. A successful CVRA claim can include “the imposition of district-based elections, that are tailored to remedy a violation of the act.”
However, there is much debate in Burbank as to whether districts would really make elections more fair. City officials said that the data gathering, demography analysis and map drawing process needs to take place before it becomes clear which electoral system would be “most democratic,” said Councilwoman Tamala Takahashi.
“It depends on the data that comes in front of us,” said Takahashi. “I’ll make my decision based on the numbers and the data, and right now there isn’t enough information to have a strong opinion in either direction,” she said, adding that she would vote for any format that is the most fair.
The council had little choice but to jumpstart the districting process, as doing so protects the city from litigation for a short time. 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.
Though the city is undergoing the districting process in compliance with the CVRA, there is no indication that the council intends to approve the districts once the maps are actually drawn.
Takahashi called this “putting the cart before the horse,” saying that the city will have to undergo the districting process before the council can decide on moving to districts or other electoral options, she said. Districting will require city residents to draw maps and submit neighborhood data to be compiled in a final district map for potential council approval on July 25.
Residents attending the meeting appeared to be split on election formats, with most favoring the current at-large system, while some have come forward in favor of districts.
“To divide the city into many districts, to cut into the fabric that has kept us as a unique community, the very pulse of the community will be torn apart … to separate is to segregate,” said one passionate Burbank resident, Laura Elliot.
Tuesday also saw a push from advocates who favor a proportional rank choice voting electoral format, a system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots.
“Proportional rank choice voting satisfies the longstanding desire of voting rights advocates to give voice to the voting minority. It gives voice to significant minority voting blocks, regardless of how the voters are distributed on the map,” said David Holtzman, a Burbank voter leading the push against districts in Burbank.
Representatives from the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization advocating on behalf of voters, called into the meeting to express their support for proportional rank choice voting. One member from the organization, Joan Hardy, said: “As a volunteer for the league, I am excited to hear that Burbank is talking about how to best improve their electoral process. I know the emphasis has been on creating district maps, which the league feels would be an improvement to the current at-large election system, but the league also supports proportional rank choice voting as another good alternative.”
Others encouraged the council to support a vote for the people of Burbank to weigh in on their preferred election format.
Later in the meeting, the public and the City Council both expressed concerns that the city had not done enough to inform residents of the potential changes to the election system.
“I share the concern that this room isn’t packed, and that tells me that our public outreach and engagement efforts are not running at full capacity,” City Councilman Nick Schultz said. “I want to gather every bit of public input that we can in this process.”
Members of the City Council generally agreed that outreach should be stronger, and that public input is paramount to the process.
The school board is also undergoing a districting process. Other seats such as city treasurer and city clerk will remain at large.
Finally, each member took turns issuing strong promises to only institute the electoral process they find is most fair, in some cases referring to Gutierrez as a “bully” for putting the city in a situation that would rush such a big change of its democratic affairs.
“I cannot and will not be intimidated,” said Schultz, apparently addressing Gutierrez’s intent to force a change in Burbank’s electoral system. “My motivation is solely one thing, and that is to do the right thing for the community. As I walk into this process, I am absolutely open to the prospect that districts might be the very best outcome for our community, and I am open to the fact that they may not.”
Ultimately, the council can decide to maintain the current at-large electoral system, though doing so would essentially invite repeated litigation. Even if Burbank prevails over Gutierrez in court, there are no protections in place to prevent another resident from suing the city on similar claims.
“As with all council action, there is a very good chance that we will be sued regardless of the outcome here, and I think that if you start to make your decision based on the fear of what lawsuit might come … you begin to stop doing your job,” Schultz said.
First published in the April 15 print issue of the Burbank Leader.