Mayor’s Minute: As Everywhere, city elections likely headed for a change

The City of Encinitas lately had its at-large election system contested under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, such as several other North County cities.

In mid-July, we received a letter in the Malibu law firm of Shenkman & Hughes, which was demanding that cities and school boards throughout Southern California alter how their board members are chosen. Mr. Shenkman’s specific allegation is that Encinitas’ present entire-city election system causes Latino “vote dilution.”

Approximately 13 percent, or 8,000, of Encinitas’ 62,000 residents are Latino.   Mr. Shenkman alleges that in the city’s 30-year history, no Latino was elected to the City Council. Many dispute that allegation, citing past elected officials whose names might not obviously reflect their heritage.

Under the current at-large system, each town resident votes for four City Council members and one mayor, together with three representatives to the ballot every two years. Mr. Shenkman alleges that the law requires that “communities of interest” be retained together in voting districts, which intends to create more minority representation on boards that are elected.

San Marcos, Oceanside, Poway, Carlsbad and Vista have all recently opted to move to districts based on this litigation threat. Each of these cities is painfully conscious that the town of Palmdale, in Los Angeles County, spent roughly $7 million fighting and losing a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by Mr. Shenkman.

Since that time, many cities and school districts have voluntarily changed from at-large into a district system under pressure from Mr. Shenkman’s business. In addition to the North County cities mentioned above, other cities which opted to district rather than confront a legal challenge include San Juan Capistrano, Costa Mesa, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Hemet, Wildomar, Hesperia, Upland, and many others.

In Encinitas, it appears clear that combating this wouldn’t be a sensible use of taxpayer money. Additionally, if a town goes to court and loses, the town would lose control of the districting process. For example, in Palmdale after the city lost the court case, four incumbent council members were put in a single City Council district by the court. In Palmdale, 75 percent of the town is comprised of individuals of colour, but the City Council members were all white with one Latino.

In Encinitas, the town likely will be divided into four components or “districts,” each with approximately 15,500 residents. Those residents would select one City Council member. It’s very improbable that our five present communities of Cardiff, Leucadia, Old Encinitas, New Encinitas and Olivenhain is going to be kept in their own districts. There’s a large population size difference between each area, and there are just five communities while There’ll just be four districts.        

Encinitas residents will be very involved in helping us draw the maps which will select representatives. It’s likely that the mayor will last to be chosen at large and not by district, provided that the voters made that change in 2014. Other North County cities which turned to district elections kept their at-large elected mayors. In drawing the maps, political parties and also the addresses of incumbents are not permissible considerations.

Although I don’t think it makes sense to resist this legal obstacle, I’m concerned about the effect redistricting will have on our town. Like other cities, I expect that we will make the change grudgingly. Our current City Council members are high-functioning, and professional — each is an exemplary public servant.

When all people are chosen by the whole community, we’re each similarly moved to reach the greater good of the whole city. District elections may create a change toward more provincialism, together with council members pressured to become aggressive, aiming to please a smaller and more particular constituency, possibly at the cost of the entire city.

I don’t have any doubt that there are competent, motivated and attractive candidates in almost any districts which will be created in Encinitas. But, I feel that structural changes can have impacts on policy results. We’ll all have to wait and see what the effects of districting is going to be in Encinitas.                

Catherine S. Blakespear serves as Encinitas chosen mayor. She also writes a monthly column in The Coast News, printed on the first Friday of the month. She can be reached in cblakespear@encinitasca.gov with any queries or remarks.

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