Tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. the California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Pico Neighborhood Association, Maria Loya vs. City of Santa Monica. The plaintiff in the case is looking to the courts to force the city to change the way it does elections for City Council seats from city-wide elections to district based ones. The suit alleges that the current election system discriminates against Latino voters.
Like a lot of the things we cover at Santa Monica Next, the story of this case is a long and somewhat confusing one.
The Pico Neighborhood Association filed suit against the City alleging that the 14% of Latinos are systematically underrepresented due to the city holding citywide elections after Oscar de la Torre lost a City Council campaign in 2016. Of the seven seats on the City Council, one of them was held by a native Latino, Gleam Davis (Davis is her married name). De la Torre is a long-time board member of the Pico Neighborhood Association and his wife, Maria Loya is also listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
In 2018, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but an appeals court overturned that decision in 2020 noting that even if a district was created centering the Pico Neighborhood, even that district would only be about 30% Latino. The plaintiffs appealed to the State Supreme Court.
Also in 2020, de la Torre was elected to the City Council along with fellow Pico Neighborhood resident Christine Parra (who has some Latino heritage.) In the past two years, Lana Negrete was appointed to fill a vacant seat in 2021 and was elected to office last year meaning a majority of the Council is actually Latino at the moment. Davis was also re-elected. De la Torre and Parra, along with Phil Brock are three members of a seven member Council who would vote in favor of supporting a settlement with the plaintiffs.
While awaiting to hear from the Supreme Court, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, Kevin Shenkman, has been involved in local politics. He enthusiastically endorsed and campaigned for candidates who would join de la Torre and Councilmembers Phil Brock and Lana Negrete to settle the lawsuit and have the city pay his attorney fees. Should the plaintiffs lose at the Supreme Court level, it is likely that the attorney will not see any fees for years of litigation.
In addition, Shenkman represented de la Torre when the city attempted to keep him out of private briefings and meetings for Councilmembers concerning the trial. Given that de la Torre’s wife is a plaintiff in the suit, the city worried that he would be a liability in any private meetings despite his elected office. The city eventually settled with de la Torre.