OCEANSIDE — Despite a plea from more than 25 speakers to continue at-large elections, City Council voted to start the process of forming voting districts on May 3.
District voting helps uphold the state Voting Rights Act that ensures minorities have the same opportunity as other community members to be elected. Future council member elections will require candidates and voters to live within the same district.
Going forward the city will hold four required public hearings, and five additional outreach meetings to gather community input on district boundaries within the next 90 days.
The end goal is to divide the city into four evenly populated, geographically compact voting districts.
The city’s decision was prompted by a letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman threatening to sue the city for violating the California Voting Rights Act if election processes are not changed.
Prior to council’s 3-2 approval, speakers shared their opposition.
Most of the speakers were part of the Oceanside Citizens Coalition, which is comprised of nine pro-constitution and voting rights activists groups.
Comments ranged from district voting racially segregating the city, to it disenfranchising residents from electing all council members, and pitting neighborhood interests against each other.
“I want the entire City Council representing me,” an Oceanside woman said. “I’m a minority. Being a minority doesn’t exclude you.”
Many disputed Shenkman’s claim that Oceanside has unfair elections.
“The letter is a lie about our city, we’re not racially charged, we’re not divisive,” Oceanside resident Michael Richardson said.
Opponents asked the city to stand up and fight the lawsuit.
Former City Council candidate Linda Gonzales, who was named as an example of racially polarized voting in Shenkman’s lawsuit letter, said she disagrees with his claims. She said Oceanside has a history of electing diverse council members.
“I feel I was treated very fairly,” Gonzales said.
Council members who voted in favor of district elections had a variety of reasons for their support.
Councilwoman Esther Sanchez said district voting will allow more minorities to run and win, and at less cost than a citywide election.
“For me it’s about neighborhoods, it’s about balance,” Sanchez said.
Councilman Jerry Kern said he does not like the idea, nor that it’s forced upon the city by a pending lawsuit. However, he said he does not see the possibility of winning the lawsuit, which other cities have lost and paid millions. Kern said he is voting in favor in order to guard city resources.
“If we lose the case, we lose all control,” Kern said. “Districts will be drawn up by a judge somewhere.”
Mayor Jim Wood and Councilman Jack Feller cast the two no votes.
Wood agreed with Kern that he did not like the idea, and disliked it being forced upon the city, and voted no.
Feller said he strongly disagrees with the letter’s claim that Oceanside elections are biased.
“I think the whole city lives together in peace very well,” Feller said.
A handful of speaker voiced support for district elections.
Their reasons included loss of funds if the city is unsuccessful in battling the lawsuit, and an opportunity for greater minority representation.
“It’s the most democratic way to govern a community,” an Oceanside woman said. “It guarantees every part of the city has a voice. It does not divide the city.”
Others argued it’s a sign of the times. The state trend is moving toward district voting. Dozens of cities vote by district including six of the eight largest cities in San Diego County. They are San Diego, Chula Vista, Escondido, El Cajon, San Marcos and Vista.
The ordinance is set to be adopted Aug. 1.