By Kirk Sanderson
Encinitas may be the next North County city to change the way its City Council members are elected, moving from “at large” to district under threat of litigation.
In her latest Sunday email blast, Mayor Catherine Blakespear reveals that Encinitas, like Carlsbad and Oceanside, has received a letter from the Malibu law firm of Shenkman & Hughes, demanding the city switch to district elections, in which the city establishes districts, equal in population, with voters in each district electing a Council member who lives in that district.
The law firm alleges the city’s existing method of electing City Council members violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Currently City Council members are elected “at large,” which means all voters in the city choose their City Council members.
The Voting Rights Act was passed in 2001 in the hopes of increasing opportunities for Latinos and other minorities to elect representatives of their choice. The law expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are being diluted in “at-large” elections. This makes it easier for minority voters to sue local governments and eliminate at-large elections.
The law specifies a number of factors for creating districts including equal populations, contiguous borders and common interests. According to the law, race should be a factor but cannot be the predominant criterion.
Before the law was passed there were only 27 cities in California with district elections, and now there are more than 60. In 2016, 21 cities in the state held district elections for the first time.
No city that has been sued over the 2001 state law has won in court. Palmdale was forced to pay $4.5 million to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, on top of its own legal fees, after fighting a similar lawsuit in 2015.
Like Carlsbad and Oceanside, Blakespear says Encinitas wants to be pro-active and make the switch to district elections on its own, rather than risking an expensive legal fight the city is almost certain to lose.
“Here’s the bottom line,” she writes in her letter. “We’re likely headed to a system where every Encinitas resident will vote for only one city council member, instead of electing all five as we do now. Every resident will live in a district with about 15,500 people in it. The mayor is likely to remain elected by voters in the entire city.”
In mid-July, she writes, Encinitas received a letter from the law firm demanding the change. “Mr. Shenkman’s specific allegation is that Encinitas’ existing entire-city election system causes Latino ‘vote dilution’,” she writes.
“About 13%, or 8,000, of Encinitas’ 62,000 residents are Latino. Mr. Skenkman alleges that in the city’s 30-year history, no Latino has been elected to the City Council. Many dispute that allegation, citing past elected officials, including Teresa Arballo Barth (2006-2014) and Mary Lou Aspell (1994-1998).
“Under the current at-large system, every city resident votes for four City Council members and one mayor, with three representatives on the ballot every two years. Mr. Shenkman alleges that the law requires that ‘communities of interest’ be kept together in voting districts, which aims to create more minority representation on elected boards.
“San Marcos, Oceanside, Poway, Carlsbad and Vista have all recently opted to move to districts in response to this litigation threat. Each of those cities is painfully aware that the city of Palmdale, in Los Angeles County, spent about $7 million fighting and losing a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by Mr. Shenkman.
“Since that time, many cities and school districts have voluntarily switched from at-large to a district system under pressure from Mr. Shenkman’s firm. In addition to the North County cities mentioned above, other cities that have opted to switch to voting districts include San Diego, Chula Vista, El Cajon, Escondido, San Juan Capistrano, Costa Mesa, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Hemet, Wildomar, Hesperia, Upland, and others.”
She concludes: “In Encinitas, it appears clear that fighting this would not be a prudent use of taxpayer money. And to what end? Additionally, if a city goes to court and loses, the city would lose control of its districting process. For instance, in Palmdale after the city lost the court case, four incumbent Council Members were placed in a single City Council district by the court. In Palmdale, 75% of the city is comprised of people of color, but the City Council members were all white with one Latino.
“In Encinitas, the city likely will be divided into four equally populated parts, or ‘districts.’ It is very unlikely that our five existing communities of Cardiff, Leucadia, Old Encinitas, New Encinitas and Olivenhain will be kept in their own districts. There is a large population size difference between each community, and there are five communities while there will only be four districts.”
Blakespear promises that Encinitas residents “will be very involved in helping us draw the four district maps. It’s likely that the office of mayor will continue to be elected at large and not by district, given that voters specified that in 2014. In drawing the maps, political parties and the addresses of incumbents can’t be factors.
“Although I don’t believe it makes sense to fight this legal challenge, I am concerned about the effect districting may have on our city. Like other cities, I expect that we’ll grudgingly comply.
“Our current council members are high-functioning and professional – each is an exemplary public servant. When all of us are elected by the entire community, we are each similarly moved to accomplish the greater good of the entire city. District elections may create a shift toward more provincialism, with council members forced to become competitive, aiming to please a smaller and more specific constituency, possibly at the expense of the whole city.
“I have no doubt that there are qualified, motivated and appealing candidates in any districts that will be created in Encinitas. However, I believe that structural changes can have impacts on policy outcomes. We’ll all have to wait and see what the effects of districting will be in Encinitas.”