Cypress city council members are facing another lawsuit over their decision to not change their election system over criticism that their current system violates California’s Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by disenfranchising people of color.
Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman has made good on his threat to sue the city for not switching their election system and filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Project in Orange County Superior Court on Wednesday.
Read the full complaint here.
Two Cypress residents — Katie Shapiro and Malini Nagpal, who is Asian American — have joined the Southwest Voter Registration Project in their lawsuit against the city.
“The Asian American citizens of Cypress whose voting rights are immediately harmed by the City of Cypress’ adherence to an unlawful at-large system of electing its city council are hindered from protecting their own interests,” the complaint filing reads.
If city officials lose in court, the lawsuit could cost taxpayers financially and also result in a judge forcing Cypress to switch to district elections as well as Cypress officials losing the ability to draw up the districts themselves.
Shenkman sent two letters to the City of Cypress demanding the voting method be changed from at-large elections to district-based elections or face a lawsuit but a majority of city council members decided to reject those demands.
When reached on the phone for comment Wednesday, Cypress City Attorney Fred Galante said he doesn’t believe the city has been served and has not yet looked at the complaint.
“I don’t know if the city has even received it yet. So it seems the media gets it before we do. Interesting,” he said
Galante wrote in a rejection letter response to Shenkman on behalf of the city that Cypress has had a history of Asian Americans on the city council.
“In 1998 and again (in) 2002, Lydia Sondhi was elected to the City Council. Also, in 2006 and again 2010, Dr. Prakash Narain was elected to the City Council,” reads the letter. “Certainly, these undeniable trends of Asian Americans succeeding in the City’s at-large elections confirm that Cypress is not the appropriate target for your cookie cutter [voting rights act] letters,” he wrote.
Sondhi has told the Voice of OC she is white not Asian American and is married to someone of Indian descent.
Shenkman and his clients claim in the complaint that Asian voters in the city are underrepresented on the council.
“Despite an Asian American population of approximately 36.8% in the City of Cypress, according to the 2020 Census, the candidates preferred by Asian American voters lose in elections within Cypress,” the complaint reads. “No Asian American candidate has been elected to the Cypress City Council in over a decade. This consistent pattern reveals a lack of access to the political process.”
Shenkman has routinely represented voting rights groups in lawsuits like this across California and garnered a reputation for forcing cities to switch their election systems.
It’s gotten to the point where usually a letter from Shenkman is enough to get cities and school districts to make the change on their own.
Those who don’t have ended up facing costly legal battles and have ultimately been forced by a judge to switch to district elections.
In cases where California courts have ruled on election lawsuits, judges routinely ruled at-large voting systems violate the state’s voting rights act.
In at-large elections, residents citywide can vote for as many candidates as there are council openings. So if two seats on the council are up for grabs, residents can vote for two candidates.
In by-district elections, residents can only vote for one candidate to represent the district they live in.
This is not the first time cities in Orange County have faced such threats.
Anaheim ended up making a switch to district voting after settling a lawsuit in 2014 from the American Civil Liberties Union that alleged at-large voting was disenfranchising Latino voters.
The legal battle cost Anaheim taxpayers more than $1 million.
Despite this, Officials in Cypress and Brea, two of OC’s smaller cities, have decided to stand up against such threats this year in order to maintain at-large elections in their cities.
In the city’s response letter to Shenkman, Galante argued that residents were concerned with losing their ability to vote for all five seats and that no areas in the city have a high concentration of any protected class under the state’s voting rights act.
“It would be impossible to show that districts would enhance the ability of any protected class to elect candidates of its choice or influence election outcomes. To the contrary, splitting up the votes of those protected classes would have the effect of preventing them from voting as a larger class to elect a candidate of their choice,” Galante wrote.
The Cypress city council voted 4-1 behind closed doors to reject Shenkman’s first letter in March.
Councilwoman Frances Marquez, the dissenting vote, publicly accused her colleagues at a special meeting in December of not wanting to switch to district elections because they’re worried they’d be put in the same districts.
Marquez was censured by her colleagues in June for allegedly violating the state’s public records act, a couple of city policies and codes, as well as for disclosing closed session information.
This isn’t the first lawsuit the city has been hit with since their decision not to alter their election system.
The March closed session decision also sparked questions on whether the vote was illegal and violated California’s Brown Act, the state’s open government meeting law.
Californians Aware (CalAware), a prominent First Amendment advocacy group, filed their own lawsuit against city officials in May for violating the Brown Act by not making the decision publicly.
City Attorney Fred Galante and officials have disputed in the past that there were any potential Brown Act violations caused by the closed session vote.
Shenkman’s first letter was sent in September 2021, and the second letter was sent last month.
“Plaintiffs attempted to avoid the need for litigation by engaging in a dialogue with the City of Cypress,” the complaint reads. “With nearly a year having passed since Plaintiff’s initial correspondence notifying the City of Cypress of its violation of the CVRA, the Cypress City Council has still not taken the actions necessary to ensure an end to its violation of the CVRA.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.