Solana Beach may be next to switch to voting districts

Solana Beach may be next to switch to voting districts
Teré Renteria, seen here with former council members Lesa Heebner and Peter Zahn and then-Mayor Dave Zito, left, at the 2016 ribbon cutting for the Veterans Honor Courtyard, served on the Solana Beach City Council in the 1990s. She is perhaps the last Latina to do so. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

SOLANA BEACH — Solana Beach is likely the next city that will be forced to abandon its at-large voting system and create districts from which council members will be elected.

Attorneys from a Malibu-based law firm sent the city clerk a letter, on behalf of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, claiming “voting within Solana Beach is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution.”

As such, it violates the California Voting rights Act (CVRA) of 2001, according to the letter, dated Feb. 14.

It goes on to state that the CVRA “disfavors” at-large voting, which allows all registered voters in a city to elect candidates to each open seat, because the system gives a bare majority of voters the ability to control every seat.

According to the letter, voting rights advocates have targeted at-large elections for decades because they often result in vote dilution, which is defined in the letter as “the impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect their preferred candidates or influence the outcome of elections.”

California law does not require that a minority group demonstrates it is sufficiently large and geographically compact enough to create a majority-minority district.

According to the 2010 census, about 2,000 people, or 16 percent of the 12,867 residents living in Solana Beach, were Hispanic or Latino. As of 2016, the city’s estimated population was 13,500, with about 8,750 registered voters.

Solana Beach and Del Mar — the county’s smallest city with approximately 4,100 residents — are among the only cities in San Diego currently planning to hold at-large elections this year.

Those that didn’t already use a by-district system, including the North County cities of Oceanside, Carlsbad and Encinitas, opted to switch during the past two years after receiving similar letters threatening legal action from Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes.

He notes that during the past 20 years in Solana Beach there have been no Latino candidates for City Council. 

Teré Renteria was elected in the 1990s and served one year in the rotating mayoral position in 1995.

Citing a 1991 Louisiana court case, Shenkman claims in his letter that the absence of Latino candidates is a result of “vote dilution” and not a lack of interest.

Ethnicity may have little to do with it in San Diego’s second smallest city. There have been an equal number of candidates for available seats in three of the last five elections. In fact, the local election was canceled in 2014 and both candidates were appointed.

Shenkman goes on to state that the “total absence of Latinos to run for or be elected to” City Council is “outwardly disturbing” and “fundamentally hostile” toward that population.

“The lack of representation for Latinos has been a long-standing issue for the City of Solana Beach,” he wrote. “Given the historical lack of Latino representation on the Solana Beach City Council in the context of racially polarized elections, we urge Solana Beach to voluntarily change its at-large system.

“Otherwise, on behalf of residents within the jurisdiction, we will be forced to seek judicial relief,” he added, giving the city an April 3 deadline to respond.

Shenkman’s firm successfully sued Palmdale in 2012 for violating the CVRA, costing the city millions of dollars. Most San Diego cities have cited that lawsuit when deciding to change their election procedures.

Most are phasing in the changes.

Solana Beach council members will likely discuss further action at an upcoming meeting. Officials including the city manager and city attorney did not respond to a request for comment or next steps.

Mayor Ginger Marshall said because it is a pending legal issue she could not comment.

A spokesman from La Colonia de Eden Gardens, an organization representing the predominantly Latino neighborhood, also did not respond to a request for comment.


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