The publicly elected board that oversees MarinHealth Medical Center might have to switch from at-large to district elections under threat of a lawsuit.
Micah Fargey, a Santa Barbara lawyer, notified the Marin Healthcare District board on June 4 that it has 45 days to adopt a resolution outlining its plan for a transition from at-large to district elections.
Fargey wrote that otherwise he would file suit in Marin County Superior Court on behalf of his client, Edwin Perez-Trujillo, whom he described as a registered voter in the district.
On Friday, Larry Bedard, chairman of the district board, confirmed that the board received the letter and said board members would discuss their response when they meet on July 14.
Recently, it has become common practice for plaintiffs’ attorneys to threaten public agencies with litigation under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Fargey is asking for $30,000 to cover his client’s costs regardless of whether the district complies.
Enacted in 2002, the law made it easier for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are being diluted in “at-large” elections.
To prove a violation, plaintiffs must demonstrate “racially polarized voting.” “Racially polarized voting” occurs when there is a difference between the choice of candidates preferred by voters in a protected class, or minority group, and the choice of candidates preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.
One way of proving “racially polarized voting” involves examining the results of elections in which at least one candidate was a member of a protected class.
Neither Fargey nor Perez-Trujillo could be reached for comment Friday. However, Fargey’s letter lays out his argument.
Since 1998, Fargey said, only seven of 60 candidates for the district board have been minorities, or members of protected classes; only two of 26 elected candidates have been minorities; and only one Latino has been elected.
Fargey said that two races in particular are relevant in his client’s claim of racially polarized voting in the district. In 1998, Bernard Del Santo, San Anselmo’s longtime police chief, finished fifth in a race for three openings on the district board. Del Santo received 27,238 votes, 15.4% of the vote.
Del Santo retired as police chief after an internal investigation concluded he had engaged in a “long-standing pattern of verbally inappropriate language, including obscenities, sexually derogatory and racially offensive remarks.”
The other race that Farbey cited is Archimedes Ramirez’s failure to win reelection to the board in 2008. Ramirez finished third in a race for two openings. He received 33,449 votes, or 22.59%.
Fargey said that both Del Santo and Ramirez would have been elected from precincts composed disproportionately of members of protected classes.
Public agencies have had little luck challenging suits brought under the California Voting Rights Act, and many lawsuits have resulted in costly settlements for the public agencies involved. In his letter, Farbey includes a list of examples including a $4.5 million settlement by the city of Palmdale and a $3 million settlement by the city of Modesto.
“It will cost us money to do it, but it would cost us way too much money to try to fight it,” said district board member Jennifer Rienks. “We don’t have the coffers to do that, especially since there have been very little success in mounting challenges.”
Bedard said, “It’s a no-brainer. I think we need to comply with California law. But what happens if no one chooses to run in one of the new districts?”
Rienks said, “I do have some concerns about our ability to attract good candidates once we’re not looking at an at-large situation. We tend not to have a huge number of candidates run normally.”
“Would it be great to have more representation on the board from minority communities?” she said. “Sure, if we’re able to find people who have some knowledge or experience around health care that they can bring to the table.”