Wednesday the Fort Bragg City Council came together for their regular meeting bi-weekly meeting. I thought it would be packed and angry. I was wrong about that. Two weeks ago unemployed newbie lawyer Jacob Patterson threw a bomb at the City Council and basically blew fair and free democracy in our little town right to hell. Like nothing else in the last eight years, the impending loss of general elections to the raging avarice of a twit lawyer has thrown a cloud of discouragement over the politics of the city. In confusion and deep uncertainty, everybody stayed home. The routinely packed City Council meeting was almost devoid of the passionate involvement that has come to characterize it. True a sizeable batch of top administrators from the Hospital had shown up to get a more or less automatic City Council recommendation for their parcel tax. Sheriff Allman drove over the hill to make his pitch for Measure C, but once the hospital gang got their rubber stamp and wandered off, the chambers were almost empty.
It has been quite an adventure for Jacob Patterson. A few short months ago, Patterson returned to the little town where he had attended high school and went down to city hall to shake the tree. First he applied to be the City Attorney. The city thought not. It would have been his first job since graduation from law school ten years ago. Undeterred, he suggested rather loudly that he would make a really great City Manager. Somehow no one took that generous offer seriously either. Big mistake. Patterson has an astronomical estimation of his own importance.
April 16th Patterson sent the city a formal demand for compliance with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The letter requests the city abandon general elections and set up five gerrymandered districts which will elect neighborhood representatives for the City Council. Patterson informed the city this innovation is necessary because the current Council does not include any Latino members.
In his letter to the City Council, Mr. Patterson pointed out that Fort Bragg was a pit of racism. Who knew? In our apparently calm and friendly little city, racism is rampant and ethnic hatred has pervaded our elections. In the righteous tones of a pious scold, Mr. Patterson informed the city that by deliberate intention Hispanic interests are being ground to dirt under the iron heel of a white majority. Patterson has dropped into our little city to correct injustice. Naturally, he expects to be paid handsomely for the pursuit of his high ideals. Possibly millions.
Lawyers who sue municipalities under the CVRA are guaranteed attorney fees and costs. A city in the crosshairs pays both lawyers if they lose and they all do. Every one of the 88 cities that has been challenged under the CVRA, has either lost in court or been forced to settle. Famous among losers is courageous Palmdale, California. Palmdale chose to fight for the right to general elections. They lost like every city before and after them. Palmdale paid $4.5 million to the plaintiff. When the dust settled it was the triumphant attorneys who told the city where they would draw their districting lines.
Former state Sen. Richard Polanco, who authored the Voting Rights Act, said the law included a provision for legal fee reimbursement in successful lawsuits because lawmakers believed “it was better to have local governments pay millions in settlements than rob minority groups of fair representation.”
Surprised to hear you’re a racist living in a racist town? So was the City Council. So were the people of the city, Hispanic and otherwise. We all thought in our innocence that Fort Bragg was one of the most integrated, mutually supportive and tolerant cities anywhere. The facts seem to declare it, and yet almost incontestably Jacob Patterson is going to win, the city is going to pay and general elections for the City Council are going away. The CVRA is sweeping the state like a virus.
Modesto was sued. They challenged the CVRA as unconstitutional. They won in trial court, lost on appeal. The Supreme Court declined to review the decision. Modesto ended up settling for $3 million and spent $1.7 million on their own attorneys. Anaheim got hit for $1.1 million. Whittier $1 million, Santa Barbara $600,000. Across California, cities have been targeted by a few proactively avaricious attorneys. Every one of those cities has settled and paid or lost in court and paid more heavily. Every city that has been sued under the CVRA, has lost the right to a general election.
In Fort Bragg, no one can quite believe the sinister inevitability of it. Fair elections are being taken from us without discussion, debate, or recourse. The division of the city into small neighborhood districts, however convoluted, will not, in fact, cannot result in any specifically Hispanic neighborhood. Hispanic voters are spread across the whole city. Like the rest of us, they will no longer vote on the whole City Council. All of our votes will be for neighborhood representatives. The Fort Bragg City Council as an instrument of the broad public will is over.
In the special City Council meeting convened to discuss the CVRA lawsuit, The City Council hid their confusion and panic behind posturing indignation and restrained professional anger. They promised the people that they would fight it, but the Council knows which way the wind blows. They have already hired a demographer to help gerrymander Fort Bragg.
It does not matter that no identifiable interests particular to Hispanic voters can be identified. Safe streets, good schools, a balanced budget and the opportunity to work hard and get ahead are common to all of us. In Fort Bragg Hispanic prosperity is general. Of the 3500 or so Hispanic residents of the city 390 are registered voters. About 1500 are citizens of the United States. Virtually all are employed. I am unaware of any restriction, prohibition or barrier to hard work and I am entirely sure that the Fort Bragg Hispanic community has distinguished itself as utterly honest, hardworking and incorrigibly decent. Intermarriage and the deep connections between us that have grown out of our churches, schools, sports and job places have knit us together in a single unified community. I will bet you thought so too. Apparently, we were wrong. Fort Bragg is a bigoted racist community even if nobody knew it. Fortunately, we have Jacob Patterson to correct our misconceptions.