Council will be Sitting Illegally August 15, says Judge

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos' signature in her March 6 order in a voting rights case against the City of Santa Monica. Photo: Sam Catanzaro.

Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos denies City’s request for a stay in voting rights case. 

By Sam Catanzaro 

The future of the sitting Santa Monica City Council remains uncertain after a judge’s order today maintains that any Council member serving after August 15 will be doing so illegally.

The case, Pico Neighborhood Association, et al. v. City of Santa Monica, filed by plaintiffs Pico Neighborhood Association, Maria Loya and Advocates for Malibu Public Schools alleges that Santa Monica’s at-large election system dilutes Latino voting power in violation of the CVRA and discriminates against Latino voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution.

In a final ruling released February 15, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos adopted the plaintiff’s judgment, ordering that all future elections for seats on the Santa Monica City Council be based on a seven-district map drawn by an expert for the plaintiffs and that the City hold a special election on July 2, 2019, for all seven seats on the Santa Monica City Council using this new district map. In addition, Judge Palazuelos ruling prohibits anybody not elected in a district election from serving on City Council beyond August 15, 2019.

On February 21, Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to appeal this ruling. On March 1, the City filed an ex parte application requesting the court to grant a mandatory stay on the prohibition of Council members from serving after August 15. In her March 6 ruling, however, Judge Palazuelos denied this request, maintaining that any Council member serving after August 15, will be doing so in contempt of the law.

Under California law, mandatory injunctive relief is automatically stayed upon the taking of an appeal, while prohibitory orders are not granted relief. Therefore, attorneys for the City are confident that the California Court of Appeal will issue a stay negating the call for July 2 elections because the order is mandatory in nature.

In their request filed on March 1, the City argued that the prohibition of Council members serving after August 15, while prohibitory by nature, is mandatory in effect.

“Its enforcement would compel the City to implement mandatory aspects of the judgment that are unquestionably stayed during the City’s appeal – specifically, the requirement that the City hold a district-based election this summer,” wrote Theodore Boutrous, one of the attorneys representing the City.

Judge Palazuelos, however, denied this request, confirming that Council members are prohibited from serving after August 15 under her order. According to Rex Parris, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, Judge Palazuelos’ denial forces the City to hold an election before August 15 if the Court of Appeal does not grant a stay.

“If the Court of Appeal has not stayed this case, that Council is sitting there illegally after August 15,” Parris said.

If a stay is not granted, the window of time in which the City would be able to hold a special election is narrow, and preparation would have to begin in the immediate future. According to Denise Anderson-Warren, City Clerk, to have a new council seated by August 15, the City would need to hold a special election no later than Tuesday, July 30 since the City holds elections on Tuesdays and the County of Los Angeles needs approximately ten days after the election to carry out an official canvas of votes.

The seven-district map drawn by the plaintiffs.

California law requires between 113 to 127 days’ notice before holding an election, and therefore the City Clerk must file a notice of election no later than April 8. Anderson-Warren is recommending City Council adopt a resolution calling for a special election by April 1. Candidates would have between April 8 and May 3 to file nomination documents with the City Clerk. On June 20, sample ballots would be mailed out and starting on July 2, vote by mail ballots would be delivered by election officials. For the July 30 election, polls would open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. in compliance with California election code.

According to Dean Logan, Los Angeles County Clerk, the cost of holding a special election in July would be $875,000.

Boutrous, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement that despite Judge Palazuelos’ ruling, the City remains confident that any requirement to hold a special election this summer – as well as any requirement that current Council members must vacate their offices by August 15 – will be stayed by the Court of Appeals.

“Given the importance of these issues, and the serious disruption of the electoral process that would follow if the City were somehow forced to hold an election this summer or eliminate its duly elected Council during the appeal, the City is considering all options to eliminate any uncertainty – including seeking relief from the Court of Appeal,” Boutrous said.