Morgan Hill

City Council Staff Report

City Council Consideration to move to District Elections


Department:City ClerkSponsors:



Staff recommends that the City Council take steps towards district-based elections to replace the current at-large election system for City Council elections which has been in place since the City’s incorporation in 1906. In a district-based election system, a candidate must live within the district they wish to represent and voters may only vote for candidates within their voting district.


Staff’s recommendation is due to the receipt of a Demand for Compliance with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) letter received on May 5, 2017 containing unsubstantiated allegations that the City’s at-large election system violates the CVRA. The letter was written by Oakland-based law firm Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian, & Ho (GBDH) on behalf of unidentified clientsThe letter alleges that there is evidence of “polarized voting” in the City of Morgan Hill electorate. The CVRA creates a strong preference for district elections for local offices.  Under the CVRA, any evidence of racially polarized voting is sufficient to require a court to order a change from at-large voting to district-based voting, even without actual evidence of an electoral injury such as the inability of a protected class to elect a candidate of its choice. Racially polarized voting occurs when there is a difference between the choice of candidates preferred by voters in a protected class and the choice of candidates preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.


Elections Code section 10010 (effective on January 1, 2017) provides a “safe harbor” from CVRA litigation for cities. If a city receives a demand letter, such as in this case, the city is given 45 days of protection from litigation to determine its options. If within that 45 days, a city adopts a resolution declaring the Council’s intent to transition from at-large to district-based elections, outlining specific steps to be undertaken to facilitate the transition, and estimating a time frame for action, then a potential plaintiff is prohibited from filing a CVRA action for an additional 90-day period. This provides time for the city to voluntarily transition to a district-based election system without having to litigate the district election system. The legislation sets forth a number of steps a city must take in the effort to assess and transition to a district-based election system, including five (5) public hearings.  Under section 10010, a city’s liability is capped at $30,000 if it follows this process after receiving a threat.  The $30,000 in liability is not automatic.  A prospective plaintiff must prove that the alleged costs were actually incurred.


Staff recommends that the City Council adopt the proposed resolution authorizing the staff to commence the process of transitioning the Council election process to by-district elections, including the establishment of a process for determining the district boundaries, and hiring a demographic consultant to assist the City in the transition process.


Additionally, staff is recommending the City Council provide direction on creating an advisory committee on electoral districts to assist in the development of district maps and to receive public input on the mapping process. The committee along with the demographic consultant would make a recommendation to the City Council, the body which would make the final decision regarding the district maps.


The team believes the public interest is best served by avoiding a costly lawsuit and spending significant amounts of tax payer dollars, which would likely result if the Council did not adopt the resolution. Such a lawsuit would be very costly, whether the City could successfully defend against it or not. Even cities that have settled (without conceding the merits) lawsuits brought under the CVRA have incurred significant expenses, not only to pay their own attorneys’ fees, but to pay the attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs. For example, in February 2015, the City of Santa Barbara reportedly paid $80,000 in attorneys’ fees and expert costs to settle its CVRA lawsuit. However, the costs are much higher for those cities that have litigated cases to judgment.  For example, the City of Palmdale incurred expenses in excess of $4.5 million in its unsuccessful attempt to defend against a lawsuit brought under the CVRA.  Moreover, according to the League of California Cities, no city has successfully defended an “at-large” system of election under a claim filed by any individual or group under the CVRA.



It is recommended that the City Council consider creating an advisory committee on electoral districts which would be comprised of members of the community. Residents are encouraged to attend and participate in the process by attending community meetings and providing valuable input. Residents will have the opportunity to present their ideas to the committee and demographic consultant, including submitting maps with suggestions for district boundaries. We welcome our community members in taking part in shaping Morgan Hill’s future.



The City Council could take no action to change the City Council election system and direct staff to defend against any CVRA lawsuits that may be filed; this option could be very expensive to defend and would likely expose the City to costly attorneys fees.



The City Council, City Manager, and City Attorney discussed the demand letter in closed session at the May 17, 2017 City Council meeting and the City Council directed the team to bring this matter back to the City Council for consideration in open session.



There will be significant resource impacts to teammates throughout the organization due to the amount of time needed to ensure thorough community engagement and to meet the legal requirements of transitioning to district-based elections. Additionally, the City will need to hire a demographics consultant. The team is in the process of requesting quotes. Based on information from other cities, the estimated cost for the consultant will be between $25,000 and $60,000. A portion of this cost would be covered by approximately $20,000 remaining in the FY 2016-17 elections budget. The team will provide recommendations as to where the remaining funds should come from at a later date. The City may also be required to reimburse the plaintiff for its attorneys fees and costs up to $30,000.


CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act): 

Not a Project


The forming of electoral districts is not a project as defined in Section 15378 of the State CEQA guidelines.


Meeting History

Jun 7, 2017 7:00 PM Video Joint City Council and Morgan Hill Financing Authority Meeting Regular Meeting
draft Draft

City Attorney Donald Larkin presented the report.

Mayor Pro Tem Carr opened the public comment at 7:26 p.m.

Anonymous was called to speak.

Hearing no further requests to speak, the public comment was closed.

Mayor Pro Tem Carr re-opened the public comment at 7:54 p.m.

David Gerard was called to speak.

Hearing no further requests to speak, the public comment was closed.

The City Council gave direction to not create the advisory committee, that we spend our efforts in working on how we do outreach for public hearings for workshops, and on the 21st that we bring back what the communications plan may look like for Council so they can understand what the outreach will be like.


Adopting resolution 17-045.

MOVER:Rich Constantine, Council Member
SECONDER:Caitlin Jachimowicz, Council Member
AYES:Rich Constantine, Larry Carr, Rene Spring, Caitlin Jachimowicz
ABSENT:Steve Tate