Cerritos College resolves gratuitous lawsuit on trustee area elections to limit costs

Cerritos College resolves gratuitous lawsuit on trustee area elections to limit costs

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Media Contact: Aya Abelon, Public Affairs; (562) 653-7878

NORWALK, Calif. - March 22, 2012 - The Cerritos College Board of Trustees announced today that they have settled a lawsuit filed under the California Voting Rights Act challenging the at-large electoral system previously used to elect the College's Board of Trustees, and seeking payment of attorneys' fees.

The College Board had already announced its intention to change its electoral system voluntarily before the action was filed, so the only issue at the time of the settlement was whether plaintiffs were entitled to payment of their attorneys' fees by the College.

Consistent with its educational mission and the importance of devoting resources for the benefit of students, the College decided to settle the attorneys' fee issue for $55,000 rather than engage in possibly prolonged and costly litigation. The Plaintiffs' attorneys had asked for $140,000 in fees and costs. While the Board believes that Plaintiffs are not entitled to any fees and costs at all, the cost of fighting a fee motion would likely have exceeded the $55,000 that the College agreed to pay.

The College's at-large electoral system resulted in the election of a diverse college board over the years, including one of the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, the College Board agreed to change the system to a district-based system called a "by-trustee area system" in response to plaintiffs' demands.

The plaintiffs, including two former candidates for the Cerritos College Board of Trustees filed the lawsuit last September in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, after the College Board had publicly announced its intention to make the change.

Plaintiffs had been informed of the posted agenda item to commence the process to change before the lawsuit was filed, but chose to file suit anyway. Attorneys' fees cannot be awarded under the California Voting Rights Act if no court case is filed.

The Board adopted final trustee area boundaries for the new by-trustee area electoral system in December 2011. Under the new system, candidates must live in the trustee area they seek to represent, and only the voters in each trustee area will elect that area's representative. The new electoral system will be used for the first time at the November 2012 elections for the Board.

"This legal action was totally unnecessary," said Dr. Linda Lacy, President/Superintendent.

Bob Arthur, president of the Board of Trustees said, "The Board had received the Plaintiffs' demand and was moving with appropriate diligence in considering and acting upon it. The College believes that Plaintiffs' decision to file suit when they did was driven entirely by the desire to get attorneys' fees. While the College believes Plaintiffs were not entitled to fees and costs under such circumstances, at a time when we need every dollar we have to support educational programs at the College, the Board decided it was cheaper to settle than to fight the claim for fees in court."

The plaintiffs are Carmen Avalos of South Gate, a former trustee with the District, who left after one term on the Board to run a failed primary election bid for a state Assembly seat and then lost her attempt at re-election to the Board. Plaintiff Tom Chavez of Norwalk, a retired classified employee from the College, also lost his 2007 and 2009 election bids for the Board. A third party, Leonard Zuniga of Downey, joined the lawsuit as well.

Cerritos College serves as a comprehensive community college for southeastern Los Angeles County. Communities within the college's district include Artesia, Bellflower, Cerritos, Downey, Hawaiian Gardens, La Mirada, Norwalk, and portions of Bell Gardens, Lakewood, Long Beach, Santa Fe Springs and South Gate. Cerritos College offers degrees and certificates in more than 180 areas of study in nine divisions. Annually, more than 1,200 students successfully complete their course of studies, and enrollment currently averages 23,000 students. Visit Cerritos College online at http://www.cerritos.edu/.