The Lompoc City Council began the process Tuesday night of drastically changing the way that members are elected to the governing body.

The council voted unanimously during Tuesday night’s meeting to adopt a resolution that outlines the group’s intention to change from at-large to district-based elections. In doing so, Lompoc joins many other cities around the state that have either already transitioned to district-based elections or are in the process of doing so.

The move aims to bring more representation to racial groups in the city that have been historically underrepresented.

The issue was brought to the forefront in Lompoc the same as it has been in many other California cities: With the threat of a lawsuit.

According to the city’s staff report, the city clerk received a letter on July 25 from attorney Micah D. Fargey on behalf of Erica Cortez Anguiano and Sarah Salcedo. The letter alleged that the city’s at-large system of elections for members of the city council violates the California Voting Rights Act.

Specifically, the letter alleged that the current at-large elections illegally abridge the voting rights of Latino voters in the city. The letter, which included a 51-page background report, noted that in the past 25 years only two of the four candidates for Lompoc’s City Council have been elected, despite Latinos making up about 54 percent of the city’s population in 2015, according to the U.S. Census.

“Abridgment of Latino voting rights and racially polarized voting characterize candidate elections and other electoral choices in the city of Lompoc,” the letter states. “This is reflected both in the small number of Latino candidates who have sought election and been elected to the Lompoc City Council and in other electoral choices in Lompoc, both within the city and of government jurisdictions including the city of Lompoc.”

The letter threatened litigation if the council did not begin the process of transitioning to district-based elections within 45 days after receiving the letter. That deadline would have been Sept. 8.

City Attorney Joe Pannone noted Tuesday night that the adoption of the resolution will give the city additional time without the threat of a lawsuit to investigate the matter before determining how to proceed. That investigation will include a demographic analysis from Douglas Johnson and National Demographics, Inc., for which the city will pay up to $11,100.

Pannone also noted that the record for entities that have chosen to fight similar lawsuits is not encouraging.

“If you take the first approach of wanting to fight it, just realize that the history of California cities and school districts and other districts battling the California Voters Rights Act (claims) is not good for the cities and other governmental entities,” he said. “There has not been a successful defense of that.”

Five of the six speakers who addressed the council during public comment on the topic on Tuesday night were in favor of district-based elections.

Former Lompoc City Councilwoman Ann Ruhge was the lone speaker to express caution. She said she felt like the city was being “blackmailed” and encouraged the members of the council wait on a comprehensive analysis before making a decision or simply giving in to avoid litigation.

Salcedo, one of the potential plaintiffs of the threatened lawsuit, also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. She took issue with Ruhge’s blackmail characterization.

“I don’t feel this is blackmail,” she said. “My grandmother lives right where that shooting happened on the Fourth of July and there’s a lot of people in that neighborhood that I’ve spoken to that have issues, that have a voice and want to say something, but aren’t being heard.”

Mayor Bob Lingl opened the discussion by asking Pannone if the city could put the choice to the voters on the 2018 ballot. Pannone said yes, but noted that doing so wouldn’t eliminate potential lawsuits.

Lingl also asked what would happen if a particular district failed to produce a candidate during an election. To that question, Pannone said the council could appoint someone or hold a special election to fill the seat for two years until the next election. He recommended that the council members choose a resident of the district in question, though he said he is unsure if they legally must do so.

Monetary concerns loomed large during much of Tuesday’s discussion, but it appears that the city will be expending a significant amount of money regardless of how the council chooses to proceed.

Without a lawsuit, the potential attorney’s fees and costs the city would be required to pay are limited to $30,000, according to the city staff report. However, if the city were to defend against a lawsuit, then the potential attorney’s fees and costs could total “in the several hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars,” read the staff report.

Further, transitioning to the district-based elections could cost the city an additional $18,500 to $45,500 for contracts with Douglas Johnson and National Demographics Inc., to assist with the process, which would include drawing up district maps.

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The staff report goes on to note that the cost of simply running a district-based election would also be more expensive than the current at-large election system.

Given that the city has about 16,000 registered voters, the staff report noted that an election map with four districts of 4,000 voters each would result in total election costs of about $19,200 — $16,000 for the mayoral race, which would remain at-large, and $1,600 for each district race (of which there would be two in each election).

Under the current system, the costs incurred by the city in the elections from 2006 to 2016 averaged about $15,000 per election.

City Councilman Victor Vega expressed support for the city to move ahead with the process. He said that the data seems to strongly suggest that Lompoc would not win a lawsuit, which could lead to a lot of wasted money.

“You gotta weigh your battles,” Vega said.

Among the cities that have recently made the transition to district-based elections is Santa Maria, whose city council voted 4-1 on May 16 to officially adopt the district-based system.

Santa Maria was spurred into considering the transition when Hector Sanchez, who finished fourth in the city council race in November, sent a letter to the city through Santa Barbara-based attorney Jason Dominguez in December that claimed the 2016 election was racially “polarized” and violated the California Voting Rights Act.

Sanchez threatened a lawsuit if the city did not change its election structure, and the city ultimately voted to meet his demands in order to avoid the potential costs involved with fighting in court.

The next regular meeting of the Lompoc City Council is scheduled for Sept. 19.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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