The next time you vote for who will represent you on the Tehachapi City Council, you'll only get to vote for one person.

That change is coming after the council passed on ordinance Dec. 4 that splits the city into five districts — and you only get to vote for a council member from your area.

That's a change from the past, when every registered voter in the city who cast a ballot had a say in who was elected to all five council seats.

While current council members agreed to the change — necessitated by the California Voting Rights Act — they still had questions during the Dec. 4 meeting.

Councilman Kenneth R. Hetge said the ordinance needed to spell out what would happen if nobody in a particular district ran for election to that seat. If no one decides to run in a given district, the City Council has the authority to appoint someone. Hetge also sought a reference to state law to be added to the ordinance. 

In response, attorney Youstina N. Aziz from Richards, Watson and Gershon, hired to help the city come up with its ordinance, said, “Somebody would be appointed and they would have to be appointed from the district where the seat is representing and that’s set forth in the government code.”

According to the Dec. 4 City Council agenda, government code 36934 is one of the codes being referenced. Aziz pointed out the city was up against a 90-day deadline to pass its ordinance, and to change the proposed wording would require starting the process over, and missing its deadline.

Hetge made a motion to add wording to the ordinance specifying what would happen if nobody ran in a given district. The motion was seconded by Councilman Dennis Wahlstrom, but not by the rest of the City Council.

Councilman Phil Smith said, “I am totally satisfied with the ordinance as presented and that it does encompass the state law to back up what happens in the event someone does not run in that district.”

Mayor Ed Grimes and Mayor Pro-tem Susan Wiggins agreed with Smith.

"Anything that is implied by state law in any other ordinance, we don’t spell everything out and I think our people who live in Tehachapi are not simplistic and they will figure that out, so I’m not in favor of inserting that either," Wiggins said.

The three council members whose terms expire at the end of 2018 — Wiggins, Wahlstrom and Smith — will be up for election, if they choose to run again, by district. 

Coming to a decision

The journey to Dec. 4's vote has taken more than two months of council member discussions, four public hearings and visits from attorneys guiding the city through the process.

In dividing the city into districts, only residents living in assigned districts may vote for a council member who also lives within the same boundaries. 

According to a City Council agenda, each district contains a nearly equal population, follows geographical boundaries, adheres to the California Voting Rights Act rules and is not to be divided so that any race is dominating another.

How it began

An accusation was brought before the City Council on July 24 by Kevin Shenkman, an attorney from the law firm of Shenkman & Hughes in Malibu. Shenkman charged the City of Tehachapi with not complying with the California Voting Rights Act and discriminating against minority groups, mainly Latinos. He threatened litigation if the city did not voluntarily change its election system.

New elections code 10010, put into place Jan. 1, 2017, forces cities that have not changed to this system by district to do so.

The decision on whether to start the process of changing to a district election system or face a possible lawsuit was discussed at the Sept. 5 and 18 council meetings. 

Members of the public addressed the board, and said they did not see evidence that discrimination against minority groups in Tehachapi was true. 

Mary Lou Corpus-Zamudio from Tehachapi, who ran for City Council in 2014 and lost, was named by Shenkman as a victim of the current system.

Appearing before the council Sept. 5 to refute the accusations, she said, “My understanding is that my name appeared in this litigation that we are going through because I was running for City Council member and I am Hispanic, classified as Hispanic. I just want it to be known that I did not win because I didn’t have enough campaign money, the voters didn’t choose me, and I didn’t work hard enough. It’s not because I am Hispanic.”

People asked whether prisoners at California Correctional Institution would get to vote; they don't due to state law. 

The lawsuit threat loomed.

”It’s not right, but do we spend all of our money on case law?" City Manager Greg Garrett said at the Sept. 20 meeting. "We have to make calculated decisions and this is something we must move forward with. It’s not in the best interests of the city.”

Said Mayor Pro-Tem Susan Wiggins at the Sept. 20 city council meeting: “I have to say once again as I have many times in my long life that your fight is with Sacramento and if that sounds like a cop-out, I don’t mean it to be. We don’t like these things any more than any of the rest of you do."

Then at the Oct. 20 City Council meeting, three examples of maps were presented by Demographer Justine Levitt from the National Demographics Corp., which the city hired to help with dividing districts. The public had the opportunity to comment on the maps as well and view the maps through the city website. 

On Nov. 20, the "purple" map was passed by the council, and on Dec. 4, the final map was adopted.