ENCINITAS — Encinitas residents — and one city councilman — urged the City Council to put the proposed changing of the city’s electoral system on hold in light of lawsuit challenging a similar decision in Poway.
The Encinitas City Council is moving closer to switching from citywide, or “at-large” elections to district-based elections, a change prompted by a lawsuit threat from a Malibu-based law firm that argues the current election system disenfranchises Latino voters.
On Oct. 30, the council reviewed the 22 proposals submitted by staff and the public for the new districts and narrowed it down to two that they will bring back Nov. 8, when the council is supposed to vote on the ordinance finalizing the transition.
In Poway, a city that made a similar decision, former Mayor Don Higginson has sued the city in federal court and filed for a preliminary injunction that would block the change from taking place. Higginson’s attorneys argue that the state law alleged to be violated by the at-large election system violates the 14th Amendment.
Led by Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz, residents urged the council at its special meeting to hold off on the process until the Poway case is decided.
Kranz, a vocal critic of the council’s decision to proceed with district elections, abstained from the Oct. 30 vote, which wound up 3-1-1, with Councilman Mark Muir voting against one of the two maps being brought forward.
Many residents who have spoken at previous district meetings have expressed concern that forming voting districts would balkanize the community and cannibalize the boundaries of the five communities that comprise Encinitas.
Kranz said the proposed maps confirm those concerns.
“The more I’ve heard from the public, the more I’ve looked at these maps, the more I am convinced that we should not be moving forward with selecting districts, and we should do everything we can to keep our at-large system so that everyone in the community can pick all five of their elected representatives on this council,” Kranz said.
Kranz said he voted to move into the 90-day “safe harbor,” during which time the city can go through the transition process without being sued, to evaluate the district proposals and make an informed decision. After review, Kranz said he doesn’t think the law firm has a strong enough case to bring a lawsuit to fruition.
“For me, the informed decision in many areas says we shouldn’t be doing this at this particular time,” Kranz said.
Almost all of the residents who spoke at the recent hearing echoed Kranz’s sentiments.
“We all said at one point if something changes we might reconsider going down this path,” said Steven Winters, an Encinitas resident who has been actively involved with the district discussions. “I believe that the recent lawsuit and possibility of a preliminary injunction … is that opening.”
Winters praised the city for making the prudent decision in August to move the city into the “safe harbor.”
“The legal landscape was stacked kind of against us, and I thought we … effectively needed to play ball because there wasn’t any case law out there,” Winters said. “We have all acted in good faith to go down this process. But I really feel the information in front of you has changed … and there is maybe the opportunity for you to say we are going to wait and see what happens with the Poway lawsuit.”
An attorney contracted by the city for the district-transition effort, however, said that Poway’s case would have no bearing on Encinitas, because the facts of the federal lawsuit are specific to Poway. If Poway prevails, however, an Encinitas resident could sue to reverse the change based on the legal arguments laid out in the Poway case, the attorney said.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear, speaking after Kranz, reiterated her belief that the city should proceed forward with the process.
“To me it is clear we only have a certain amount of … money, time and energy,” she said. “And if we start wading into these other areas, it limits our ability to do other things in the city. I do see districts being not as good as our current at-large system, but I don’t think it will be a terrible disaster for the city, that’s not the way I see it.”
Blakespear also rebuffed calls by Kranz and several residents to transition to five elected districts and eliminate the elected mayor position if forced to move forward with districts.
Kranz, who opposed the 2012 voter initiative to move to a directly elected mayoral system, said that he believed the previous system, where the mayor position rotated annually, worked fine until 2010, when the previous council majority skipped over Teresa Barth’s mayoral rotation and instead voted to appoint Jerome Stocks as mayor.
Blakespear argued that 16 of the county’s 18 cities directly elect their mayor, the minority cities being the county’s smallest, Del Mar and Solana Beach; and that the residents, if faced with the prospects of being able to elect only one or two of the five council members, would choose two.
“It gives you a stake in two positions,” she said.
Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath and longtime resident Cindy Beck agreed, arguing that the electorate emphatically voted for a directly elected mayor system only five years ago.
“Only a few years ago, the citizenry decided on a separately elected mayor,” Beck said. “This decision should be honored, period.”
The council majority in the end selected two four-district maps drawn by an unnamed citizen as the maps they would decide between on Nov. 8.
In one of the maps, labeled “citizen’s 16,” New Encinitas is divided into three voting districts. District 1, which would encompass half of Leucadia, would take the northern portion of New Encinitas; District 2 would include the southern half of Leucadia and Old Encinitas. District 3 would include most of Cardiff-by-the-Sea and the Via Cantebria corridor of New Encinitas. District 4 includes all of Olivenhain, the eastern section of New Encinitas, and a sliver of Cardiff along Manchester Avenue. All five of the current council members would be in a separate district in this scenario.
The second map, “citizen’s 15” would place Muir, who lives in New Encinitas and Kranz, who lives in Leucadia, in the same district. Their district, District 1, would include the northern half of Leucadia and the Via Cantebria corridor. District 2 would include southern Leucadia and Old Encinitas, District 3 would include all of Cardiff and the southern edge of New Encinitas and District 4 would encompass northeastern New Encinitas and most of Olivenhain.
Muir said he could not support Map 15, and said he wanted more maps to move forward to the Nov. 8 meeting to give the public more of an opportunity to weigh in. Blakespear said the Oct. 30 meeting was scheduled to provide residents with that opportunity.