Avoiding a threatened civil rights lawsuit, the Oakley City Council has joined a parade of cities switching to district-based elections.

Councilmember Randy Pope said during the July 13 public hearing, when the decision was made, that the notice sent to the city last year by the Shenkman & Hughes law firm alleges “racially polarized voting” in the city.

Pope asked City Attorney Derek Cole, “What evidence do we have of any ‘racially polarized voting’ in the city?”

Cole hesitated in answering the question but said, “None.”

Cole added, “We do not have Latino candidates … an argument could be made.”

Cole then explained to the council that few if any area cities have fought the lawsuits which have been filed against scores of cities across the state. Cole also noted the high cost of litigation and added that no city has yet prevailed in court. All current Oakley City Council members are white.

Cole said in a staff report that Shenkman “asserts that the city’s at-large electoral system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a protected class) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Oakley council elections. As a result, the lawsuit contends the city violates the California Voting Rights Act by allowing ‘racially polarized voting’ to occur.”

The city now has six months to plan and organize the election switch which will entail hiring an outside law firm to supervise the effort and initiate public hearings to seek residents’ input and draw the new districts.

A diverse population

Oakley, with a population of 43,387, consists of 63.9 percent white residents, 7.3 percent African American residents, fewer than 1 percent Native American residents, 6.3 percent Asian residents, fewer than 1 percent Pacific Islander residents, 14.1 percent from other races, and 7.1 percent from two or more races. Nearly 35 percent of residents claim Hispanic or Latino ancestry, of any race, according to the 2010 U.S. census.

Cole said that the city is still waiting on data from the 2020 census.

In other decisions at the July 13 meeting, the council approved plans from the Diablo Water District for a new corporation yard office and shop building on a 1.4-acre site at 3990 Main St. The 14,600 square foot building will house the yard office, shop space, covered work bays, and a 5,785 square foot unenclosed covered area for equipment storage and fleet parking.

The water district originally estimated the cost of the project at $5.25 million but the price ballooned when the midpoint price of contractors’ bids came in at more than $8 million.

Dan Muelrath, the district’s general manager, said Monday that the 50 percent increase in cost contained in the four bids the district received, “did give us pause.”

He and his staff are reviewing the bids and attempting to work with the contractors to find ways to cut costs, he said.

“Nothing is a shock anymore,” Muelrath said, when it comes to construction costs in our pandemic era.

“There is a rise in the cost of computer chips, pipe shortages and gross inflation in general,” he said.

Muelrath hopes that the district’s board of directors will be able to approve a final bid at their September meeting.

“We’re committed to providing adequate facilities for our staff.”