The City of Encinitas recently had its at-large election system challenged under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, like several other North County cities.
In mid-July, we received a letter from the Malibu law firm of Shenkman & Hughes, which has been demanding that cities and school boards throughout Southern California change the way their board members are elected. Mr. Shenkman’s specific allegation is that Encinitas’ existing entire-city election system causes Latino “vote dilution.”
About 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 has been elected to the City Council. Many dispute that allegation, mentioning past elected officials whose names might not clearly reflect their heritage.
Under the current at-large system, every city resident votes for four City Council members and one mayor, with three representatives on the ballot every two years. Mr. Shenkman alleges that the law requires that “communities of interest” be kept together in voting districts, which aims to create more minority representation on elected boards.
San Marcos, Oceanside, Poway, Carlsbad and Vista have all recently opted to move to districts based on this litigation threat. Each of those cities is painfully aware that the city of Palmdale, in Los Angeles County, spent about $7 million fighting and losing a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by Mr. Shenkman.
Since that time, many cities and school districts have voluntarily switched from at-large to a district system under pressure from Mr. Shenkman’s firm. In addition to the North County cities mentioned above, other cities that opted to district instead of face a legal challenge include San Juan Capistrano, Costa Mesa, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Hemet, Wildomar, Hesperia, Upland, and others.
In Encinitas, it appears clear that fighting this would not be a prudent use of taxpayer money. Additionally, if a city goes to court and loses, the city would lose control of the districting process. For instance, in Palmdale after the city lost the court case, four incumbent council members were placed in a single City Council district by the court. In Palmdale, 75 percent of the city is comprised of people of color, but the City Council members were all white with one Latino.
In Encinitas, the city likely will be divided into four parts or “districts,” each with around 15,500 residents. Those residents would elect one City Council member. It is very unlikely that our five existing communities of Cardiff, Leucadia, Old Encinitas, New Encinitas and Olivenhain will be kept in their own districts. There is a large population size difference between each community, and there are five communities while there will only be four districts.
Encinitas residents will be very involved in helping us draw the maps that will elect representatives. It’s likely that the mayor will continue to be elected at large and not by district, given that the voters made that change in 2014. Other North County cities that recently switched to district elections retained their at-large elected mayors. In drawing the maps, political parties and the addresses of incumbents are not permissible considerations.
Although I don’t believe it makes sense to fight this legal challenge, I am concerned about the effect redistricting will have on our city. Like other cities, I expect that we’ll make the change grudgingly. Our current City Council members are high-functioning, and professional – each is an exemplary public servant.
When all of us are elected by the entire community, we are each similarly moved to accomplish the greater good of the entire city. District elections may create a shift toward more provincialism, with council members forced to become competitive, aiming to please a smaller and more specific constituency, possibly at the expense of the whole city.
I have no doubt that there are qualified, motivated and appealing candidates in any districts that will be created in Encinitas. However, I believe that structural changes can have impacts on policy outcomes. We’ll all have to wait and see what the effects of districting will be in Encinitas.
Catherine S. Blakespear serves as Encinitas elected mayor. She writes a monthly column in The Coast News, printed on the first Friday of the month. She can be reached at email@example.com with any questions or comments.