Over the Hill

In his letter Andrew Sandoval of LULAC says courts almost always agree that at-large elections should become district-based. “These are not the kind of odds that Monterey wants to bet on,” he wrote.

The city of Monterey’s at-large election system, in which the mayor and all four city council members are elected through a citywide popular vote, could be silencing the political voices of some and creating obstacles to equal representation, according to a local civil rights group that is demanding changes to the city’s electoral process.

Monterey, a city of 30,218 residents according to 2020 census data, has 16 distinct neighborhoods, yet, the mayor and all four council members come from only two of these neighborhoods: Oldtown and Monterey Vista, which border one another and are considered locally as being “up on the hill.” The city has also become more diverse over the last decade, with the portion of the population identifying as a racial minority growing to nearly 33 percent, while the portion of the white population fell from 78 percent to 67 percent. Today, four of five of the city’s elected leaders are white.

At-large voting systems in a city like Monterey open up the possibility that the white majority’s political preferences dilute the preferences of racial minorities. The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 was put in place to address this and created a low threshold for challenging local at-large voting systems throughout the state. In a Sept. 25 letter to the city, Andrew Sandoval, director of the Salinas-based chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, said his organization believed Monterey’s current system violates state law and threatened litigation if the city refused to change. Salinas, Marina and Greenfield each have district-based systems, and Sandoval says LULAC has started discussions with Soledad about a similar transition.

Former Monterey city manager Fred Meurer, who retired in 2013 after 27 years, says it wasn’t uncommon to see a majority of the city council coming from “up on the hill,” which spurred some conversations during his tenure about district-based representation; however, he says the discussions were never in the context of racial equity.

“In my 20-plus years, I don’t remember there being council members from the Casanova or Laguna Grande neighborhoods,” Meurer says. “There were geographic concerns. The needs of the residents on the hill are different.”

In March 2020, Rick Heuer, Tom Rowley and Richard Ruccello, who are all white, sent a similar letter to Monterey pushing for district-based elections, alleging that various neighborhoods have seen little or no representation on city council or the city planning commission. However, Rowley says the basis of their letter was economic, not racial, discrimination. Heuer says although they still support by-district representation, they withdrew the letter after it was clear that the pandemic would hinder public meetings on the topic.

The city has until Nov. 9, 45 days from receipt of the letter, to indicate their opinion on changing to by-district elections. The city has requested an extension on that deadline to Feb. 15.

Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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