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Compton Unified Loses CVRA Lawsuit, District Slammed With Over $200,000 in Attorney’s Fees

BY BRIAN HEWS

Compton Unified School District, which encompasses Compton, parts of Carson, Long Beach, Paramount,  Willowbrook, and Lynwood, is home to over 160,000 people, a large majority, 103,330 (64.3%), are Hispanic or Latino; eligible Latino voters comprise over 47% of the population.

In addition, according  to the California Department of Education, of the nearly 23,000 CUSD students, 78.7% are Hispanic or Latino.

Yet the entire CUSD Board – President Micah Ali, VP Satra Zurita, Clerk Charles Davis, and members Mae Thomas, and Sandra Moss – are all African-American, and it has been that way for over a decade. Margie Garrett, who passed away in July, was also African American as is current CUSD Superintendent Dr. Darin Brawley.

In fact, very few Latinos have been elected to the CUSD Board of Trustees. Since 2003, only two Latinos have been elected, the last Latino to serve was in 2009. 

It was not for lack of trying, thirteen Latino candidates have thrown their hat in the ring since 2009 but were denied “due to the discriminatory at-large CUSD system and the persistence of racially polarized voting in the District.” 

And the current board has recently fought hard to keep it that way, needlessly and recklessly spending hundreds of thousands of tax-payer dollars on high-priced lawyers defending the indefensible, until last week when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ralph Hammock finally ruled against them.

This past Sept.10, the CUSD became the latest school district to abandon at-large elections in favor a system where candidates represent specific neighborhoods, but they did not do it without what some would call a dirty fight.

The victorious California Voting Rights Act lawsuit was filed by lead attorney Morris “Mike” Baller, of counsel with Oakland-based Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho on behalf of CUSD residents and plaintiffs Lizette Arevalo, Francisco Orozco, and Monica Rincon.

Their scheme started  in December 2017 when the CUSD Board adopted a resolution to change election dates, choosing the latest permissible dates possible.

The resolution also extended by one year all Board members who were elected in November 2017 and intended to extend the terms for those elected in November 2019.

After that action, plaintiffs Arevalo,  Orozco, and Rincon had seen enough, enlisting the help of Baller who sent a letter October 9, 2018 notifying CUSD that their at-large election system violated the CVRA.

According to court documents, the CUSD and its attorneys with Irvine-based Littler-Mendelson – never responded to the letter. 

But the letter served its purpose;  under the Elections Code, the CUSD was now mandated to announce within 45 today days its intention to change the election system, if they did not, a CVRA lawsuit could be filed on the 46th day.

Following their scheme, the CUSD Board, 44 days after they received the letter, adopted a resolution announcing its intention to convert to district elections, but only after conducting the November 2019 election.

Board members up for reelection this year are President Micah Ali,  Clerk Charles Davis, and Sandra Moss.

The next day Baller sent a second demand letter to the district  pointing out that even if it carried out its announced intention to change to a district election system, the November 2019 would violate the CVRA. 

Once again the CUSD and Littler-Mendelson never responded to the letter.

But the newest resolution started the clock, giving the CUSD Board ninety days to take specific actions to implement its purported plan to convert its elections to a district system.

True to their scheme, the CUSD Board did “absolutely nothing” to implement the district system within the ninety days. Indeed,” wrote Baller, “ the public record does not disclose any actions whatsoever taken by the CUSD to implement its purported conversion plan during that period.”

Seeing enough, Baller filed the CVRA complaint on April 29, 2019; two months later CUSD lawyers filed a weak response “specifically denying each and every allegation in the complaint,” while not citing any case precedents.

In his judgement, Judge Hammond handed Baller and the plaintiffs a huge victory ruling that the CUSD violated the CVRA, specifically Sections 14027 and 14028 of the California Elections Code.

Hammond cancelled the upcoming November 2019 election, dealing a blow to President Ali, Clerk Davis and Board member Moss’ attempt to skirt the system and run for reelection under the at-large system, holding on to their seats for another four years.

The three were ordered to run in March 2020 when the turn-out will be much higher than the 8% average they have enjoyed for years.

In the biggest victory, Hammond ordered the district to convert to trustee-area district voting by March 2020, “establishing a district map clearly showing the boundaries of each district.”

“Defendant shall take all reasonable steps to secure approvals for the trustee area elections including, but not limited to, seeking actions of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and any other governmental boards or agencies.”

Then Hammond slammed the CUSD, ordering the district to pay $200,000 in attorney’s fees, making the CUSD Board’s scheme to retain their seats while violating the CVRA cost taxpayers over $210,000. 

Baller told HMG-LCCN, “The CVRA provides for attorneys fees and costs to be paid to successful plaintiffs by losing defendants.  I wrote three letters to the District last Fall and in early January informing it that the election system it used violated the law and demanding that it be changed.  At that time, the maximum amount that could have been awarded was under $30,000, the cap for pre-litigation awards under a recent amendment to the CVRA; in fact much less at the time of the first letter.  The district did not respond to any of those letters until April, and meanwhile proceeded with its intention to hold another at large election in Nov 2019. By that time the lawsuit was under way.”

“The $200,000 awarded by the Judgment was based on actual work done and costs paid by plaintiffs’ counsel and will not be increased for future work required in the case.  It is my invariable practice in CVRA cases, and has been since years before the law required it, to send jurisdictions that are in violation of the CVRA a notice letter demanding that they change the election system.  Those which have promptly complied have paid little or, in some cases, no fees.”

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