The City of Morgan Hill paid just over $38,000 in attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs who won a lawsuit earlier this year that accused the city of violating state redistricting law, according to city staff.
City Attorney Don Larkin said the city has paid attorney Christopher Skinnell $38,463 for legal fees related to the lawsuit, which resulted in the court tossing out the city council’s chosen new district map in May. Larkin said that amount was “stipulated” between the city and plaintiffs, who avoided further litigation on the amount of attorney’s fees owed.
Skinnell was hired by four plaintiffs—former Morgan Hill Mayor Steve, Swanee Edwards and Brian and Kathy Sullivan—after a majority of the city council in April approved a new council district map that violated the California Fair Maps Act.
The lawsuit alleged that the new district map—known as “Map 103”—was not in compliance with the Fair Maps Act because it included a district that was not geographically contiguous. Under the Fair Maps Act, elective council districts must be physically contiguous, “to the extent practicable.”
At a May 9 hearing, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Julie A Emede agreed with the plaintiffs’ suit, and ordered the city to reject Map 103 and approve a new redistricting map.
The council met on May 18, and replaced the litigious map with a map known as “NDC Green,” which appeared to meet all federal and state redistricting requirements, Larkin said at the time.
The council redistricting process began in late 2021 with a series of public workshops and meetings that allowed Morgan Hill voters to offer input by drawing their own draft maps that the council could consider. The council and city staff narrowed down the options to about six draft maps by March, including Map 103 and NDC Green. The latter was drawn by the city’s redistricting consultant, National Demographics Corporation.
Larkin, NDC staff and an outside attorney advised the council that Map 103 was not in compliance with the Fair Maps Act, and its approval would likely invite a lawsuit. Larkin recused himself from the Fair Maps Act lawsuit, and the city council had hired outside attorney Armando Benavides to defend the City of Morgan Hill in the court proceedings.
Mayor Rich Constantine and Council members Yvonne Martinez Beltran and Rene Spring voted to approve Map 103 at two separate meetings in March and April.
Map 103 represented largely the same district boundaries first drawn by the city council in 2017. But the Fair Maps Act wasn’t passed by the state legislature until 2019.
Larkin said the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees were paid from the city attorney’s budget for liability claims.
Registered voters in the City of Morgan Hill can view the new district boundaries, and search for which district they are in, on the city’s website.
Council Districts B and D, as well as the mayor’s seat, will appear on the Nov. 8 election ballot. Districts B and D are currently occupied by Yvonne Martinez Beltran and John McKay, respectively.
Michael Moore is editor of the Morgan Hill Times.
So the council majority ignored the advice of the city attorney and the city wound paying for both sides of this lawsuit (the story left out how much the city paid its outside attorney). Congratulations to Mr. Skinnell for knowing how to get a court hearing in less than a month.