SOLANA BEACH — With little fanfare and no community input, the process by which council members will be elected was unanimously approved July 10 at the fifth and final required public meeting.
“This is not what we want to do,” Mayor Dave Zito said. “We’re doing it as a business decision. This is the right thing to do.”
City Attorney Johanna Canlas called it “the conclusion of an arduous process that the city had to go through in light of a demand to transition over to district elections.”
Since it became a city, Solana Beach has held at-large elections, meaning council members were elected — two in one election cycle and three in the one two years after that — by all residents regardless of where they live.
The mayor, based on the number of votes received in the previous election, was appointed by council members and rotated annually.
That began to change in February, when Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman sent Solana Beach a letter threatening litigation if the city didn’t switch to district-based elections.
The letter, sent on behalf of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, claimed “voting within Solana Beach is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution” and in violation the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
Rather than fight what would likely be a costly, losing legal battle, council members agreed to make the change, as have most other cities who received a similar letter from Shenkman.
In May the city began the process to make the switch and received about 39 possible district configurations, some of which included keeping the rotating mayoral process intact.
Council members at a June 26 special meeting selected one that divides the city into four districts, each with about 3,200 residents.
Three districts run east to west from the coast to about Interstate 5, although one includes a neighborhood northeast of the freeway. One district is entirely east of the freeway.
The new process will be implemented in phases, with council members from districts 1 and 3, as well as the mayor, elected in 2020, when the terms of Jewel Edson, Judy Hegenauer and Zito expire.
Under the adopted map, Zito and Hegenauer currently live in district 1. Edson is in district 3.
Representatives from districts 2 and 4 will be elected in 2022. Because the census takes place in 2020 it’s possible the district lines will change.
Because of registrar of voter deadlines, city officials said they were unable to hold the required meetings and adopt a final map in time for the November election.
After the fourth public hearing, Shenkman said it was “unfortunate” the city opted to change the way it selects its mayor.
“I’m not saying we would take legal action, but it is something that would need to be considered, particularly when the city didn’t have an at-large elected mayor in the first place,” he added. “To try to hold on to one at-large seat is suspicious. You’re not going all the way.”
At press time Shenkman had not returned several requests for comment on the adopted maps and process.