City facing demand to switch to district elections

ENCINITAS — Encinitas has become the latest target in a series of demands for North County cities to abandon citywide elections in favor of electing council members by district.

And if history is any indication, Encinitas will be the latest city to begrudgingly make the electoral change.

The city received a legal demand letter from the law firm Shenkman & Hughes, the same firm that has targeted San Marcos, Oceanside, Vista and Carlsbad in recent months.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman, in the letter dated July 14, asks the city to voluntarily change its citywide election system or face litigation. Shenkman argues that the citywide voting violates the California Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the voting power of the city’s Hispanic residents — who comprise 13.7 percent of the city’s 63,000 population.

Shenkman’s firm, which represents a voting rights organization for Latinos, made similar demands in the four aforementioned cities.

In each case, the city chose voluntarily to create districts for future elections — including at least one district whose population has a Hispanic majority — as opposed to fight them in court.

Escondido was the first North County city to make the change in 2013.

All of the cities chose the voluntary path because no city has ever prevailed in a lawsuit challenging a city’s at-large elections since the state Legislature passed its updated Voting Rights Act in 2002.

Palmdale in Los Angeles County challenged Shenkman’s firm in 2012 and lost a jury trial, costing the city millions in the process.

As proof of this disparity in Encinitas, Shenkman’s letter states that Encinitas has never had a Hispanic elected official and that historically, the city’s first mayor in 1986, Marjorie Gaines, was hostile toward Hispanic immigrants.

Encinitas, however, has elected at least two council members of Hispanic heritage: Mary Lou “Lou” Aspell, who served a single term from 1994 to 1998, and Teresa Arballo Barth, who served eight years on the council from 2006 to 2014.

Aspell, reached this week, said she doesn’t support the concept of cities like Encinitas voting their elected officials by district because it creates divisions and doesn’t guarantee the best candidates will be elected.

“What guarantees that an individual is the best candidate for the city, there is no guarantee,” Aspell said.

Aspell also questioned whether the district system would be effective getting more Hispanics elected to the council, given the city’s smaller Hispanic population than its neighboring cities.

“And if it doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to accomplish, then what?” Aspell asked.

Chula Vista and El Cajon recently also switched electoral systems in the face of similar legal demands.

In the case of most of the cities, the mayor’s seat will still be voted on in a citywide election.

The Coast News reached out to Encinitas elected officials for comment on the Shenkman letter. Tasha Boerner Horvath said, “We received the letter and after we resume session we will look at our options,” and pointed out that contrary to the letter, Encinitas has had two Latina council women, Barth and Aspell.

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