It isn’t every day that Hollywood’s movers and shakers reap collateral benefit from a civil rights action brought by lower-income Latinos. But something like that might be happening, at least in a small way, as Santa Monica’s Pico Neighborhood Association forges ahead with its California Voting Rights Act suit against the City of Santa Monica and its at-large system for electing council members.
Last month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos shocked Santa Monica’s generally progressive city council with her tentative ruling that the current at-large voting system is illegal, because it has for decades resulted in under-representation of the beach city’s Latino population.
Historically, Hispanic voters have clustered in a Pico Boulevard neighborhood that long ago was cut off from the more prosperous side of town by the Santa Monica Freeway. North of Montana Avenue, very much on the other side of the new Metro Rail tracks, a similarly distinct neighborhood houses dozens of film and TV writers, directors, producers, stars and a few odd production managers. Out of respect for their privacy — crime has been rising there of late — we’ll reserve the litany of names, dating back to the late Shirley Temple Black. But you know who you are.
Under the at-large voting system, however, political power has rested with a large bloc of middle-zone renters and homeowners who mostly have been in tune with the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights since the late 1970s. That group and other interests in the city have been the major support for a council that generally manages to exclude poor Hispanics and wealthy north-of-Montana types (with the notable exception of Bobby Shriver, who won a seat in the fondly remembered 2004 rebellion against unreasonable
It’s unclear whether the Pico people and the Montana folks agree about much of anything. But the Santa Monica population generally has been up in arms over property crime, street violence, transient occupation of the parks, public drug use, traffic, hyper-development and the sudden proliferation of dockless rental bikes and electric scooters, plus the unnerving evolution of the Third Street Promenade into something resembling CityWalk-by-the-Sea.
Enter Judge Palazuelos. On Friday morning, she listened to vigorous arguments by lawyers for both the city and the Pico association. The city contends that she simply was wrong in declaring its election system illegal, and that the current council should remain in place pending appeals that could take years, and, should it lose those, until a series of proposals and reviews can yield some new electoral process. The Pico association insists that the judge should issue an injunction against the illegal system, and institute district voting according to a proposed map that would, among other things, leave both the Latino South and the Hollywood-heavy North with local council members, each attuned to neighborhood interests. (The most glamorous person in the courtroom on Friday was lawyer Milton Grimes, who once represented Rodney King and now is on the Pico team, though he didn’t address the court.)
The judge is still considering remedies. The city has vowed to appeal her underlying decision. City Hall demonstrators have been insisting that the appeal be dropped before legal costs — already in the tens of millions of dollars — creep higher.
Meanwhile, I’m wondering if some of my famous neighbors — the cranky franchise director? the aging screen comic? the TV star who defends cat-eating coyotes on social media — might consider running for that proposed district seat. If nothing else, it would be entertaining.