When the next election for Tehachapi City Council members comes around, the public may be voting for its representatives by newly formed districts, rather than citywide.

Current council members and the public on Sept. 5 discussed the change, which could be required because of the California Voting Rights Act.

“This is Sacramento at its worst, as a matter of fact, and I do not believe districting is the best for the city of Tehachapi. Representation, I believe, will go down, so this is going to be similar to the County of Kern and the City of Bakersfield,” City Manager Greg Garrett said.

He added, “It doesn’t reflect the true identity of the community. It’s a sad day in the City of Tehachapi."

Currently, all voters within city limits vote for all the seats on the council. But that could change, with the city divided into a yet-to-be-determined number of regions. Then, each voter would only get to vote for the council member for his or her geographic area.

A July 24, 2017, letter from Kevin Shenkman, an attorney from law firm Shenkman & Hughes in Malibu, accused the city of not complying with the California Voting Rights Act. It said the current voting system “dilutes the ability of minority residents — particularly Latinos — to elect candidates of their choice,” according to material provided in the Sept. 5 council agenda.

If the city does not comply with this request and does not convert to district-based elections, then a lawsuit is on its way, according to an agenda summary of the attorney's letter.

According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2010, Hispanic or Latino residents accounted for 37.9 percent of the more than 12,000 total city population.

The city may object to this change in how council members are elected, but other cities have fought this issue and have lost. 

“Just keep in mind that we are a rule of law city and when laws are passed we’re obligated to follow the law and we will do that,” Mayor Ed Grimes said. He added, “At least the process that we are going through allows us to have some leeway and some say on how it should be.”

Elections code section 10010 was established on Jan. 1, 2017 and forces cities to make this change.

What does this mean for voters? How will the areas be divided up?

With the help of a demographer, the City of Tehachapi will be divided into sections of neighborhoods, schools and businesses. It will be based on the population, and is not expected to include the Tehachapi California Correctional Institution inmates.

Four meetings will be held from Sept. 5 to Nov. 20 to give the current council and the public an opportunity to voice their opinions. The next public hearing is at 6 p.m. Sept. 18 at the Wells Education Center at 300 S. Robinson St. It is part of the next council meeting.

If the city refuses to change its voting system, then attorney’s fees to fight a threatened lawsuit will likely exceed $1 million, city staff wrote in agenda documents. That estimate is based on what other cities have paid to try to fight the change.