HomeCity Government NewsPanel Shifts Gears in Districting Talks

Panel Shifts Gears in Districting Talks

In a surprise move in Burbank’s transition to district elections, the Burbank City Council shifted gears and declined to adopt a staff-recommended districting ordinance that was months in the making.

Instead, Council directed staff to investigate cumulative voting and report on how it may help democracy and political representation in Burbank. It also requested more information from the county elections’ office and how it might conduct cumulative voting for Burbank City Council elections.

Cumulative voting is a process under which electors are given three votes to elect multiple Councilmembers. Voters can use all three votes on one member — maximizing voting power on one candidate — or divide their votes among a number of candidates.

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. 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 Council had little choice but to jumpstart the districting process, as doing so protects the city from litigation for a short time. They 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.

The decision to investigate cumulative voting came at a time when the Council was asked to approve a five-district map, the result of nearly a year’s worth of staff resources and public outreach and participation.

The map — dubbed “Map 130” — would separate the city into five electoral districts, three east of the 5 Freeway, and two west of the freeway and up into the foothills.

The council was set to introduce two ordinances Tuesday evening: one finalizing the selection of “Map 130,” and another that would change the city’s municipal code to conform with district elections.

Opponents to districting argued that the ordinance would be illegal, saying that the measure technically violates Burbank’s city charter, which specifies at-large elections.

“It’s just wrong for staff and consultants to propose or recommend actions for you to take which would violate the city’s charter. Your first duty should be to the city’s charter,” said Burbank resident David Holtzman, a proponent for ranked choice voting who directed his comments to the panel. He added that the move could invite a costly lawsuit.

Throughout the districting process, voting rights advocates, including the League of Women Voters, called for alternatives to districting such as ranked choice voting and cumulative voting.

Both formats involve what academics consider more equitable election methods that prevent the dilution of minority groups’ electoral power.

During the discussion, the Council was largely against districting, despite having pursued the format out of fear of litigation, and to maintain the safe harbor period from further legal trouble while districting was considered.

Avoiding litigation is still a big priority for the panel. Under the state’s Voting Rights Act, electors can sue the city and force districting if an elector feels their voting power was diluted.

The city’s special counsel on the matter, Marguerite Leoni, commented on how the court system would consider cumulative voting and ranked choice voting in a CVRA dispute: a topic recently elucidated by the California Supreme Court in the Pico Neighborhood Association v. the city of Santa Monica.

“Those methods of election can be effective in demonstrating the undiluted voting strength of protected class voters,” said Leoni.

According to the state Supreme Court decision, a new electoral system would simply need to remedy the “lack of equal opportunity,” Leoni said.

But according to Leone, ranked choice voting and cumulative voting are proposed to be implemented in Burbank through an at-large system.

“In the event that any one of those systems might be ineffective in the desired goal of providing real opportunity to elect chosen candidates, those systems would still be exposed to litigation under the CVRA,” said Leoni.

But another safeguard for cities undergoing CVRA disputes was defined in the Santa Monica case. The court clarified that plaintiffs must prove voter dilution in order to win their claim.

When the city first considered alternate electoral methods, staff brought up concerns over the county’s ability to hold such elections via its computerized election system. The city’s contracted demographer, Douglas Johnson of National Demographics Corporation, pointed out Tuesday that a cumulative election might be possible through the county system with some limitations.

Ideally, the system would allow for voters to input three votes on one page, with all three going to one candidate, or divided between candidates. Instead, Johnson said, the council election would be listed three successive times in the voting system.

“It would look like three elections, but you would just vote one time in each. It would need a public education campaign, but it could be done,” Johnson said.

After considering all the options of electoral methods, the majority of Councilmembers clearly favored cumulative voting or wanted to investigate it further before deciding on districting.

“In my view, the best option is going to look at the composition of the Council, whether or not you are going to have a citywide elected mayor, and if I’m a voter, I don’t want to approve these districts unless I know what is going to be the process every 10 years of drawing these lines,” said Vice Mayor Nick Schultz Tuesday.

Schultz then endorsed cumulative voting and ranked choice voting over a district map, saying that the map proposed is not the best possible option for holding the fairest elections in Burbank.

Councilwoman Nikki Perez agreed with Schultz and added that the Council has not yet reviewed all of the options and therefore could not make a responsible decision on the matter.

After some deliberation, the panel chose to take the following steps prior to making a final decision on districts or alternative electoral methods:

• Contact the Los Angeles County Clerk regarding the feasibility of cumulative voting for residents and return with a first-step report on cumulative voting that addresses any expected impact on voter representation.

• Direct the city’s Charter Review Committee to consider the size and composition of the City Council, consider various iterations of districts, the possibility of a separately elected mayor, and a redistricting process.

• Invite the prospective plaintiff to participate in discussions to ensure any potential outcome addresses the concerns posed by the initial notice.

Since March 2023, the city has conducted an extensive public outreach process which included five public hearings and eight community forums to collect resident feedback. To learn more about the districting process, draft map submissions, and community outreach efforts thus far, visit BurbankCouncilDistricting.com.

First published in the October 7 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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