The city of Millbrae has begrudgingly begun the process of adopting district elections, a move that will divide the city into sections for the purpose of electing members of the City Council.

The switch is spurred by a letter received earlier this year claiming the city is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act and threatening to sue if action is not taken. The letter alleges that certain ethnic groups in the city have seen their votes “diluted” in violation of the CVRA, and the effect is a council that does not represent the population’s ethnic makeup.

Currently, the city’s entire population casts votes for all five councilmembers who rotate the mayor and vice mayor roles. District elections will mean voters will choose only a single councilmember to represent their district. The city will be divided into either four or five districts, depending on if the mayor is decided to represent a district or continue to be elected at-large.

“While none of us are happy with this, we are stuck moving forward,” Mayor Ann Schneider said, who along with other members of the council said the move will not have the desired effects of bolstering underrepresented groups. “There are many problems with CVRA in terms of really creating diversity and opportunity.”

The city of just more than 22,000 has seen substantial demographic shifts in recent decades, and despite Asian Americans now accounting for nearly half the population while whites make up roughly 40%, the City Council remains all white except for one Asian American member. Additionally, 11.4% of the city is “Hispanic or Latino,” according to 2019 census figures.

According to the letter, the “complete absence of Latino representation on the city’s governing board, and consistent underrepresentation of Asians on the governing board, is revealing.”

If the city were to invite a lawsuit by refusing to switch, according to attorney Alan Fenstermacher, a voting rights specialist hired by the city, the outcome would likely not be in the city’s favor and would cost millions in taxpayer money.

“We’re not here tonight because there’s any evidence of wrongdoing, or that the city elections don’t properly represent protected classes and minorities,” Fenstermacher said. “We’re here simply for two main reasons, and those reasons are the bar for liability under this CVRA is extremely low, the other reason is if you lose as a city, you have to pay the plaintiffs attorney fees, and those two things combined create an extreme risk.”

Earlier this year, the city of Santa Clara was forced to pay $4.5 million after losing a similar case. Palmdale had to pay a similar figure in 2015, and Modesto taxpayers footed the bill for a $3 million loss in 2008. Those numbers are not including the cities’ own costs incurred during the process.

In fact, no city has ever won litigation after being accused of violating the CVRA, Fenstermacher said. A loss generally also means the city would lose control of the process of splitting the city into districts.

The process, which the city has spent time discussing in private meetings, has already cost $100,000, City Manager Tom Williams estimated.

“I think if the risk were $200,000, $300,000, I would say yeah we should fight this,” Councilmember Reuben Holober said. “But if the risk is potentially several million dollars if we were to lose a lawsuit, it really forces our hand.”

The switch to district elections, Holober said, is a bad fit for the city, which is already very integrated and has not only a relatively small population but also covers a small geographical area, just 3.3 square miles. The move he said would promote division, and could cause councilmembers to look out first and foremost for their own district as opposed to the city as a whole.

“I think this would make sense in larger communities and communities that are pocketed with different ethnic groups heavily concentrated in one area or another,” Holober said. For a community like us, district elections create poor outcomes.”

‘Millbrae is being bullied’

Additionally, some councilmembers claimed the letter, sent by an attorney on behalf of You You Xue, a local business owner who ran twice for City Council but did not secure a seat, is more of a personal vendetta than a ploy for representation. 

“This is not because of some grassroots efforts or large mobilization of people in Millbrae,” Holober said. “This is really because of one twice unsuccessful candidate who wants to change our system of free and fair elections here in Millbrae, as well as an attorney from Malibu who wants to make a quick buck on Millbrae taxpayers.”

Councilmember Anders Fung echoed the sentiment.

“I’m usually not emotional on topics especially on council meetings, but this one here it really hit me hard,” Fung said. “Millbrae is being bullied in this particular case, by those who threaten to sue us. We are here primarily because there is a self-serving agenda by somebody.”

According to the letter, Xue lost “despite significant support from the Asian community, due to lack of support from non-Asians.”

Next steps

The city Tuesday approved a “resolution of intent,” which starts a 90-period in which the city is shielded from CVRA lawsuits. In that time at least five public hearings must be held to collect input from the community and discuss the redistricting process.

“We need to do a very good outreach effort, especially, to people who don’t really feel comfortable speaking to us,” Schneider said. “If we can figure that out, then we’ve made a big step as a community.”

Schneider said that although she opposed the switch to districts, she is “looking forward to the day when we have someone from Millbrae who lives on the eastside of El Camino Real, whether it’s Marina Vista or Bayside Manor.”

“I grew up here, and I will tell you I never went to the east side until my last year in high school,” she said. “Railroad tracks and roads can create barriers.”

Still, Schneider said, “districting is not necessarily the way you fix underrepresentation. Providing opportunities, getting people onto committees and commissions, encouraging them to take on leadership roles is how we grow the next set of Millbrae leaders.”

Schneider pointed out the city already does very well with female representation — much better than at state and federal levels. Both she and the vice mayor are women, as is a councilmember. 

Though the council unanimously agreed to move forward with the redistricting process, noted was the need to work to change the law moving forward.

“Millbrae is a pretty good case study for a poor fit of this CVRA,” Holober said. “And despite all of these factors that seem to showcase a poor fit, we’re still being forced into this position.”

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