Judge Orders New Election for Four Members of Palmdale City Council

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

Palmdale residents went to the polls on Nov. 5 and elected two new City Council members, including  the city’s first African-American to hold the post.  But now it’s unclear if they will have their seats for very long or even take their seats after the trial judge proposed a special election be held next June. As one incumbent candidate won possible re-election, the practical impact is whether the city’s first African-American Council member will be seated.

Palmdale’s decision to proceed with the November election was not without controversy as the trial judge had issued an injunction to stop it. That decision was later reversed by an appellate court, allowing the election to proceed.

Palmdale, however, was required to seek permission from the appellate court to certify its election results, and officials are waiting to hear if that permission will be granted. Meanwhile, on the day before Thanksgiving, the trial court judge issued his proposed remedy for a decision he issued earlier this year – the city had violated the rights of minority voters because of its historical use of an at-large election system that allows every resident to vote for every City Council seat.

The judge’s proposed remedy:

  • City must convert four at-large City Council seats to a district-based election system. The chosen plan will result in two majority Latino districts;
  • The office of mayor will continue to be elected at-large;
  • A special election to elect four new Council members will be held on June 3, 2014, and the results must be counted and certified by July 9, 2014.  Future elections will be held in November and the City retains the ability to adopt procedures to stagger the elections.

In light of this proposed remedy, it remains to be seen whether the appellate court will permit the City to certify its Nov. 5 election results. If so, what is the point of having new officials take their seats if their term is only for six months? But if the election results aren’t certified will this mean that the entire council will not change until June, regardless of the Nov. 5th election?

The focus for many public agencies besides the growing attorneys’ fees and costs associated with California Voting Rights Act litigation is the speed and the nature of any court-based remedy. By this time next year, four members of the City Council could be filled with completely new faces and may have no prior experience as a public official. Only the mayor who serves as the 5th City Council vote will not be required to run for re-election as his office was deemed to be a separate office.

Only once this proposed remedy is finalized, can Palmdale appeal the trial court decision.  In the meantime, this Palmdale case sends a very strong signal for agencies to settle any pending lawsuit or voluntarily convert to a by-district election system. The benefit of voluntarily changing allows elected officials and voters to possibly play a role in the creation of new districts. Going to court simply takes those roles away altogether.

Will this Palmdale case galvanize a growing interest to seek a legislative fix, or will it simply encourage more lawsuits?

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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