Carlsbad will soon become the sixth city in San Diego County to elect City Council members by district rather than at large, spurred to make the switch – like other North County cities – under the threat of litigation.
The Carlsbad City Council on May 9 voted to voluntarily move to district elections, taking advantage of a legal protection that enables cities to have a say in district boundaries and avoid costly litigation. This protection applies only to cities that pass a resolution within 45 days of receiving a demand letter alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. The resolution must indicate the city’s intent to move to district elections and the plan to make the change.
To date, no public agency that has fought a lawsuit has prevailed, with some paying legal fees in the millions. In the coming days, the city will announce dates and locations of public meetings to get input into the district boundaries.
The vote was 3-2, with Councilmembers Keith Blackburn, Michael Schumacher and Cori Schumacher in favor. Mayor Matt Hall and Councilmember Mark Packard were opposed.
The Carlsbad vote came a week after the Oceanside City Council adopted a similar resolution to begin the process to transition to district elections.
Boundary lines for districts will be drawn and adopted “in a public and transparent process,” according to a press release from the city.
The city will hold four public hearings before the City Council and five community meetings over the next 90 days.
According to the release, the move to district elections in Oceanside should be finalized by the Nov. 6, 2018 general election.
This means that candidates for City Council will need to live in the district where they seek election, and voters in each district will vote for only their representative, instead of the entire Council. The Mayor’s seat will continue to be elected at-large and will not occur until the 2020 election.
San Diego moved to district elections in the late 1980s, while Escondido followed in 2013. San Marcos switched to district elections in 2016 and Vista earlier this year agreed to do the same.
Proponents claim district elections offer better representation, particularly in regard to minority communities, because officials elected only by voters in their district are directly accountable to their constituents.
Critics say district elections tend to produce myopic officeholders who put the needs of their specific communities above those of the city at large.
Observers expect more cities to follow. Attorney Kevin Shenkman has sued or threatened to sue various Southern California cities on behalf of Southwest Voter Registration Project, a Latino voting rights organization. The city of San Marcos agreed to move to district elections last year after receiving a letter from Shenkman, and Vista’s decision to do so as well came after Shenkman in February sent Vista officials a letter alleging its elections are “racially polarized” and violate the California Voting Rights Act.
City officials in Oceanside and Carlsbad have also received a letter.