Vista — Despite their reservations, the City Council unanimously decided to explore switching to district elections to choose council members.
The decision comes nearly three weeks after an attorney, representing a voting-rights organization for Latinos, threatened to sue the city over violations of the California Voting Rights Act, if it didn’t change its system of electing council members at-large, to voting districts.
No city has successfully defended against these types of lawsuits, and that track record was front of mind when council members made their decision on March 28.
“I think (this lawsuit) is horrible for my city. If this wasn’t going to cost $5 million and we still lose, I would adamantly oppose and kick and scream like crazy, but this is the one fight…I walked in and lost before I threw a punch,” Councilman Joe Green said.
Specifically, the council chose to explore establishing four districts, with the mayor continuing to be elected at-large. Two districts would be up for election in 2018, and the final two would be elected in 2020.
Most council members expressed their frustration at being told what to do by outsiders – both Shenkman, who lives in Malibu, and the state legislature in Sacramento.
“It’s a sad thing, and I don’t like to be dictated to by Sacramento what we can do with our city,” Mayor Judy Ritter said.
Another common concern was that five members would represent the city better than four districts competing on the council.
“I feel our council has represented all parts of our community,” Councilman John Aguilera said. “The reason I’ve been opposed to districts in the past is because that might go away, and you might only have one person fighting for your area, whereas right now I feel like I have five people.”
Although most of the council spoke against it, many of the residents who attended the council meeting were in favor of by-district elections.
“I am for district based elections, simply because I feel the council should reflect the population. As you said, Mayor Judy, you feel like you have no voice and that’s what the community of minorities feel…. Like we have no voice,” Cindy Odo-Amen said.
Still to be decided is what the four districts would look like, and the council heard from a demographer, Dr. Justin Levitt, who helped El Cajon, Escondido, and San Marcos establish their districts.
He described the process of creating the maps, and what criteria could be used to define districts, like streets, highways, rivers or groups of neighborhoods. Whatever those boundaries, the districts would need to meet Federal standards for equal population, without racially gerrymandering, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
Levitt said that process needed to involve input from the community.
“We encourage people to tell us, ‘This doesn’t work for X, Y, and Z.’ Those reasons that you give, for why a map works or doesn’t work – that’s the heart of this,” Levitt said.
Vista won a lawsuit in 2003 against the Department of Justice, which alleged the city was violating the voting-rights of Latinos.
It was this defeat, as well as others the DOJ brought against cities, that instigated the California Voting Rights Act — the law now being used to force cities to adopt new electoral systems.