Joins growing list of cities weighing potentially high litigation costs
Folsom, CA – At its July 27 meeting, after weighing potentially high litigation costs, the Folsom City Council approved a resolution declaring its intent to transition to a by-district election system for electing Folsom City Councilmembers.
Since the City of Folsom was incorporated in 1946, the city has elected its Councilmembers through an at-large election system. Under this system, registered Folsom voters elect the five City Councilmembers regardless of where the candidates reside in the city. Under by-district elections, the city is divided into five districts, and each voter within a district may cast one vote for a candidate residing within that district.
The City Council’s decision to transition to district-based elections is in response to lawsuits against other California public agencies related to the California Voter Rights Act (CVRA). Under the CVRA, public agencies can be sued when an at-large election system is alleged to have impaired a protected class’s ability to elect candidates of their choice or their ability to influence the outcome of an election.
There has been no finding that the City of Folsom has violated the CVRA or any other law protecting Folsom residents’ right to vote. However, proof of discriminatory intent or historic discrimination is not required for a plaintiff to prevail in a CVRA lawsuit.
No public agency has successfully defended against CVRA
“I believe the CVRA is fundamentally flawed. The decision to transition to a district-based election system was a proactive and prudent move to avoid a costly lawsuit,” said Mayor Mike Kozlowski. “Since not a single public agency has successfully defended a CVRA lawsuit, we know this measure will potentially save city taxpayers millions of dollars, which is better spent on providing and maintaining the highest quality services and amenities to all Folsom residents.”
The legislature established a very low threshold for plaintiffs to win a CVRA lawsuit. To date, no public agency has successfully defended a legal challenge to remain in an at-large voting system. No proof of discriminatory intent or history of discrimination is necessary for a plaintiff to prevail. The costs to defend a CVRA challenge can be tremendously high, in some cases well into several millions of taxpayer dollars. If the city does not transition to a by-district election system and loses the lawsuit, the court is required to implement district-based elections and award attorney’s fees and litigation expenses to the plaintiff.
Most California cities, special districts, and school districts that have recently transitioned to district-based elections have done so because of legal challenges brought under the CVRA, including the cities of Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, and Roseville, and the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.
In February 2020, the city received a petition from the Folsom Area Democratic Club and numerous Folsom residents to begin the process to change City Council elections from at-large to by-district. In late October, the city received a letter from the petitioners’ attorney alleging that Folsom’s current at-large method of election may be in violation of the CVRA. On January 20, 2021, the city was served with a lawsuit alleging the city’s at-large election system is in violation of the CVRA.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued executive orders suspending timelines related to the CVRA, effectively placing a hold on scheduled public meetings to start the districting process. Due to the temporary suspension of the CVRA timelines, the city was successful in having the lawsuit dismissed on that technical ground. With the lifting of those orders on July 1, 2021, the city resumed public meetings about its election system.
The city anticipates that the by-district election system for electing future Folsom City Councilmembers would begin with the November 2022 General Municipal Election.
The City of Folsom is committed to extensive public outreach throughout the process. The process for establishing districts is controlled by federal and state laws, including data from the federal Census. The city would be required to identify the number of districts, adopt a map, determine the election sequencing, and hold a minimum of five public hearings. The series of public hearings will be held once population numbers and other demographic data from the 2020 U.S. Census are available.
A professional demographer has been hired by the city to assist in the creation of proposed district boundaries based on extensive input gathered from residents and demographics. The city, in conjunction with the demographer, will establish a schedule for soliciting public input during the district mapping process.
Stay informed at www.folsom.ca.us/districtelections.