MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez Unified School District (MUSD) Board of Education may seek a meeting with Registrar of Voters Joseph E. Canciamilla, who recently mailed a notice to many district voters telling them their precinct no longer has a polling place and they would receive mail-in ballots instead.
The panel also may ask the district to notify Secretary of State Alex Padilla about Canciamilla’s letter, saying it may violate state law.
What didn’t sit well with the Board was the Elections Division’s suggestion that voters should contact either the Board or the city of Martinez if they had questions about the change.
Specifically, the letter tells voters, “You are now assigned to a vote-by-mail precinct. The City of Martinez and the Martinez Unified School District made changes to their respective voting boundaries, which created voting precincts of fewer than 250 people. These precincts are designated as vote-by-mail precincts.
“Because there is no polling place available for your precinct, you will automatically be mailed a ballot with a postage paid return envelope for each election, beginning with the General Election in November 2018.
“In making the changes to a vote-by-mail precinct, our goal is to minimize any disruption to you, the voter, while making the change administratively manageable to preserve election integrity and prevent unanticipated costs.
“When the city and the District adjust their respective boundaries based upon the 2020 census, it may be possible to assign some vote-by-mail precincts back to polling places. Please direct any questions or concrns to the Martinez Unified School Board (www.martinezusd.net/board) and to the Martinez City Council (www.cityofmartinez.org/gov/mayor.asp).
“Sincerely, Joseph E. Canciamilla, County Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters.”
But both the Board and the City Council have said their hands were forced by accusations from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who accused them of violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) through at-large elections he said diluted the votes of minorities, specifically Hispanics and Latinos, and threatened suit if the two bodies didn’t switch to voting areas or districts.
Once they embarked on that course to avoid the real possibility of multi-million-dollar lawsuits which Shenkman invariably has won, the two panels had 90 days to draw districts that complied with multiple state and national voting rights acts’ restrictions on how those maps can be created. Those restrictions included requirements for several public hearings, both before and after tentative maps were drawn.
While the city’s hearings had multiple public speakers who wanted to overturn referendums that chose an elected city mayor and individual’s or groups’ map suggestions that failed to meet state and federal population division mandates, the school district hearings garnered little public attendance or comment.
At Monday’s meeting, the panel did hear some public comment.
Craig Lazzeretti, who is challenging incumbent Deidre Siguenza, was less upset about Canciamilla’s letters or whether residents would be voting by mail than he was about the time the panel spent on the topic.
Saying the panel was throwing Canciamilla under the bus, he said he was doing the same with the Board, suggesting it should have done more to educate the public about the voting system change. Canciamilla, he said, champions transparency with information about who tries to buy elected leaders.
Ultimately, Martinez and the District raced this year to avoid Shenkman’s threatened lawsuits.
The city adopted four Council districts and kept its at-large elected mayor, while the Board divided MUSD into five voting areas. Because the city and the school district boundaries don’t coincide, each body had to hire its own demographics and map-drawing specialists.
As this was going on, Canciamilla’s office said those changes could mean neither the City Council nor the Board elections would be consolidated in the Nov. 6 election. Normally they’re combined in general elections as a cost-saving measure to all governmental agency participants.
Under its contractors’ supervision to keep the election laws’ mandates of “one person, one vote,” Martinez adjust some of its maps to avoid picking up a steeper tab for electing two seats on the Council as well as a mayor this year.
Four of the Board said they received Canciamilla’s letter, dated Aug. 13, and would be among those voting by mail. Only Bobbi Horack, who faced no challengers and will remain on the Board, gets to vote at a polling place.
That worried Boardmember Kathi McLaughlin, who said the Board still has one disputed seat; the city has one disputed Council seat as well as the mayor’s race.
Also before Martinez voters are two revenue ballot measures, one by the city, the other by the District.. The city’s proposed half-cent sales tax, Measure X, would provide general fund revenues that could be spent on Martinez Police and other municipal needs.
The school district’s Measure Q would raise the parcel tax from the existing $50 to $75 to raise $850,000 to be spent on attracting and retaining teachers, maintain and promote multiple education programs, keep school libraries open and maintain school counselors.
Those ballot measures are important to each agency, an unhappy McLaughlin said.
“A huge number of people are being disenfranchised,” she said, expressing doubt that the local post office would deliver all their ballots correctly. “I could not find mine last year,” she said.
“I’m very frustrated,” she said. “It (Canciamilla’s letter) says to call us. It puts it on our shoulders to answer questions.”
Canciamilla’s letter, dated Aug. 13, has led some members of the public to send their comments and questions to the city and school district. District Superintendent C.J. Cammack said he’s been fielding some of those questions.
But he also looked up Election Code 3005. (a), which says, “Whenever, on the 88th day before the election, there are 250 or less persons registered to vote in any precinct, the elections official may furnish each voter with a vote by mail ballot along with a statement that there will be no polling place for the election. The elections official shall also notify each voter of the location of the two nearest polling places in the event the voter chooses to return the ballot on or before election day. The voter shall not be required to file an application for the vote by mail ballot and the ballot shall be sent as soon as the ballots are available.”
McLaughlin picked up that Canciamilla had the option not to require vote by mail on the smaller precincts, and asked whether studies showed voter participation rose or fell when ballots only could be cast by mail.
Another of her concerns was whether the Elections Division had accurate records of voters’ addresses. She said she has updated her own records there twice, but that office sent her some elections candidate information to an address she had two moves ago.
Handling voting matters online is another challenge, she said. “His system does not appear to work.”
She also observed that the change to by-area or by-district voting did not increase candidate participation as some had predicted and she expressed worry that the school district’s parcel tax ballot measure could suffer.
“There is a lot of confusion out there,” she said, adding that a friend who got the letter asked her, “What did you do?”
Board President Jonathan Wright said he was proud of the Board’s work in making the changes to avoid spending or losing millions through Shenkman’s threatened lawsuit.
His frustration with the Elections Division led to his call for the District to send a letter to Padilla, pointing out that Canciamilla failed to comply with the Election Code when he didn’t specify two nearby places where voters could drop off ballots.
Wright reminded the Board of the recent Town Hall attended by the City Council, U.S. Representatives Mike Thompson and Mark DeSaulnier, the two Democrats who share Martinez in their districts, as well as Postmaster Jeanette Davis, prompted by problems residents have been having with their mail.
He said he also was upset that Canciamilla had told voters to contact the school district or city if they had questions, saying it would be just as improper for the District to send parents to the Elections Division with questions about their children’s education.
“I’m offended,” he said, adding that Canciamilla’s letter suggests the city and school district “did something to confuse voters,” and postings on the county election division’s social media sites are “a stick in the eye” and “poisonous.”
As Wright and others had said in the past, both the Board and the city had a severe deadline to get the change made before a state-established protection against Shenkman ended.
Wright suggested that had community members or a grass-roots group had come to the Board asking for a change, “I firmly believe we would say, ‘Let’s do it.’” The panel would have had more time to craft its voting areas, and would have done so without spending “a considerable amount of money” to get the job done to avoid Shenkman’s litigation, he said.
But neither the City Council nor the Board had that luxury because of Shenkman’s demand letter. Given those circumstances, Wright said, “Government officials casting aspersions on government officials is the last thing we need.”
In other matters on Monday’s agenda, the Board heard reports on its summer school and Extended School Year (ESY) programs and campus projects that were accomplished during summer.
The panel’s new student representative, Fatima Lizarde, was introduced.
Under its consent calendar, the panel granted permission to John Swett Elementary School’s fourth graders for an overnight trip to Coloma Outdoor Discovery School in Placerville and accepted a $2,000 donation from Sara Knodell and a Disney EARS to You grant to John Muir Elementary School. The Board also ratified contracts with the Speech Pathology Group, Language Line Services and Delia Colorado.
Several speakers, including two children, urged the Board to wrap up negotiations with the Martinez Education Association, the labor representative for its teachers. Some adults were parents of Martinez students and are Antioch teachers as well.
The children asked for their teachers to be appreciated, and one said labor talks had kept her teacher away from instructing classes.
Cammack said the District had been talking with its teachers and both sides had met with a mediator who failed to bring the two sides into an agreement.
The next step is for the MEA to file for a fact-finding board, but Cammack said that step hadn’t been taken prior to Monday’s meeting. Because the MEA had moved negotiations away from traditional talks, only the union could take the steps to return the two sides to the negotiating table, he said.