Arguing that the city of Monterey is exposed to a lawsuit under the state’s Voting Rights Act, three local residents have petitioned City Council to switch from at-large to district-based elections.
In a letter dated March 4, Rick Heuer, Thomas Rowley and Richard Ruccello wrote that the city’s current system of electing councilmembers on a citywide basis has resulted in the underrepresentation of certain neighborhoods.
“At-large elections in Monterey have favored only certain neighborhoods for decades,” they wrote. City Council and the Monterey Planning Commission have seen few or no representatives from the Oak Grove, Villa Del Monte, Del Monte Beach, Del Monte Grove, Laguna Grande, Casanova Oak Knoll neighborhoods, according to the letter.
“These neighborhoods have the lower-income concentrations in the city of Monterey and the highest number of minority residents,” they wrote.
Monterey is about two-thirds white and the rest is mostly Latino with some black and Asian residents, according to U.S. Census data. Four of the five current councilmembers are white and all are men.
Rowley and Heuer head the Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association, and Ruccello is the president of the Casanova Oak Knoll Neighborhood Association. All have lived in Monterey for decades.
California passed the Voting Rights Act in 2001 because many local elected bodies remained overwhelmingly white even as the state’s racial composition grew increasingly diverse. The law empowered the courts to force cities to divide into districts so that candidates would run to represent specific geographic areas. The law also prohibited gerrymandering.
Districting helped increase diversity but it was also a boon to opportunistic lawyers who found a way to target certain cities and raid public coffers. Some cities spent millions in litigation.
In 2016, a coalition of left-leaning groups rallied behind reform. Assembly Bill 350 was sponsored by Luis Alejo, a vocal champion of Latino representation who was then an assemblymember and now a Monterey County supervisor. AB 350 set a cap of $30,000 on what cities would have to pay and gave city councils up to 135 days of safety from lawsuits to consider and switch to district elections.
The 135-day clock began ticking when Monterey received the letter from three residents, who say that rather than sue, they want to protect the city from outside lawsuits. “It made sense to cut off any of these attorneys trying to fatten their pockets,” Rowley says. “The city of Marina has been held hostage by attorneys using [the law] as a means of extortion.”
Monterey City Council discussed the letter in closed session on March 17.