The lawyer for plaintiffs who have now sued three local entities said his firm is hoping the defendants settle because going to trial “won’t benefit anyone,” said Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes, a Malibu law firm that’s suing the city of Santa Clarita and two local school districts.
“You only need to look to Palmdale to see that that doesn’t help — to look at the hole that they’ve dug themselves into,” Shenkman said.
The firm is handling the litigation for three civil rights suits against Santa Clarita Valley public agencies that could cost local taxpayers anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to millions in legal fees.
The suits, which are very similar to one that Shenkman’s firm is litigating in Palmdale, allege that at-large elections, which take place throughout the Santa Clarita Valley, have denied access to voters.
The Palmdale suit is thought to be decided “any day now,” with the bill to Palmdale “north of $1 million in legal fees,” if the city loses.
Shenkman is trying the cases on a pro bono basis, which means he is only reimbursed for his billable hours and the expert testimony he is pays for out of pocket, if his suit is successful.
R. Rex Parris joined in the suit against Palmdale in late January, and has also signed on to three suits being filed against Santa Clarita Valley entities.
The Palmdale trial concluded May 15, and the court required written closing statements June 6.
The suits claim that the city – as well as the Sulphur Springs and Santa Clarita Community College – hold at-large elections that deny access to Latino voters.
“We only want to fight enough to get to what’s right for the minority interests in the district,” Shenkman said.
However, a Santa Clarita Valley education official likened the suits to an irresponsible cash grab at the expense of local school district funds and taxpayers’ money.
Joe Messina is president of the Hart School Board, which isn’t a target in the recent spate of lawsuits.
“What a great way for attorneys to make money — to sue the pockets of the districts,” said Joe Messina, board president for the William S. Hart Union High School District, sarcastically. “The numbers showed that districting would make things worse because they would water down the larger groups, so where you normally have an 18 percent Hispanic population in the whole valley then you get those numbers down to single digits in some areas. How does that change anything?”
The Sulphur Springs School District lawsuit alleges that the district comprises a portion of the city of Santa Clarita with 56,256 residents, and 30.6 percent of the registered voters in that district are Latino.
“The Latino population located within the SSSD is geographically concentrated, particularly in the pockets of the Newhall and Canyon Country neighborhoods,” according to the lawsuit.
The Hart district, a valleywide district that governs the schools for the SCV’s approximately 23,000 junior high and high school students, which also has a Hispanic governing board member in Gloria Mercado-Fortine, who’s announced her intention to run for Santa Clarita City Council next year.
More than a half-year of research proved single-member districts would only make the problem worse, Messina said.
The lawsuit calls for single-member districts, or another suitable remedy, Shenkman said, and cited several school districts’ efforts to move the elections as evidence that they have acknowledged a problem.
Moving the elections to even years has proven to improve access, and would be considered a step in the right direction, Shenkman said.
It’s a move that several local school districts tried to do, including COC’s governing body and the Sulphur Springs School District; however the county cited that it didn’t have the resources to handle so many elections during gubernatorial- or presidential-year elections.
A measure to allow the elections to move was basically nullified by a 2-2-1 vote by the county’s Board of Supervisors in May.
Several school officials have argued that their research has shown that single-member district elections, which would divide the Santa Clarita Valley representation, would not solve anything.
“In a town like this, in a city like this, this will not fix the problem,” Messina said. “This will make partisan politics worse.”
Another alternative is what’s known as limited voting, Shenkman said, whereby voters choose one candidate, instead of a top-three ballot, which is currently the system in place.
“The typical remedy has been to go to single-member districts, however there have been many cases where a court has found, ‘Yes, there is a problem, but we think another remedy is appropriate,” Shenkman said.
Calls seeking comment from Sulphur Springs School District officials have not been returned. Officials with the College of the Canyons and the city of Santa Clarita both said they have not yet had a chance to formally brief their governing boards so an official response has not yet been formulated.
In the meantime, if a judge doesn’t throw out the suit, and then a settlement isn’t reached quickly, a huge burden would be passed on to taxpayers, Shenkman said
District officials for Cerritos Community College decided to settle early on, Shenkman said, and their costs were about $55,000.
However, in the case of Sanchez vs. Modesto, which was litigated by a different firm and resulted in a decision that went with the plaintiff — one that the state’s high court and the Supreme Court refused to review — the legal fees went in excess of $3 million.
Shenkman likened Modesto’s demographics to those of Santa Clarita.
“We served the city and the school districts on June 26 and they have 30 days to respond to the complaint,” he said.
“We would certainly invite a conversation or a discussion as far as where we go from here,” Shenkman said. “It’s not in anyone’s interest to go to a scorched earth litigation routine.”