SOLANA BEACH — As the city begins the process to switch from at-large to district-based elections, many of the approximately 25 people who attended the first required public hearing May 14 said they don’t support the change.
But since the move appears imminent, their preference would be to create four districts that split Solana Beach east to west and elect a mayor rather than appoint one, as has been the tradition.
The city received a letter in February from a Malibu-based attorney claiming “voting within Solana Beach is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution,” resulting in a violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
Kevin Shenkman has sent similar letters to cities and special districts throughout Southern California. A few tried unsuccessfully to fight the switch and spent significant amounts of money doing so. More than 90 cities and 165 school districts have transitioned in recent years.
Rather than fight what would likely be a losing legal battle, council members agreed last month to make the change beginning in 2020.
City Attorney Johanna Canlas said council members made “a complete policy decision” to spend about $100,000 to make the switch rather than “putting aside $8 million to fight a lawsuit.”
“We are a firm believer that there is no racial polarized election in Solana Beach,” she said. “We are not conceding that there has been a violation of the CVRA. This is a complete business decision.”
“The legal risk is huge,” said Douglas Johnson, the demographer hired to guide the city through the process.
“I have the utmost respect for our current council,” resident Tracy Richmond said. “I’m not criticizing them. I am criticizing bad policy in fear of litigation. Sometimes there’s things worth fighting for, and this might be it. There isn’t racially polarized voting in this city.”
Other speakers agreed.
“While … CVRA was created for a noble purpose, I don’t believe our city is a poster child for its application,” Councilwoman Jewel Edson, who is part Latina, said. “I don’t believe that our city’s at-large voting method creates racially polarized voting, nor impairs minority group’s ability to elect City Council candidates of their choice.”
“While the Hispanic population is diffused throughout Solana Beach, we do have a small concentration in (the) Eden Gardens area,” Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said. “To say they are not represented is false. To say their interests are polar opposites of this council is false.”
She noted several city-funded improvements made in Eden Gardens and at La Colonia Community Center and Park, as well as council decisions to scale down proposed developments to maintain the character of that neighborhood.
“I do not see evidence that the needs of our Hispanic community have not been addressed,” Heebner said. “Furthermore, dividing our whole city up into districts wouldn’t solve it if it were an issue. So, the remedy for something that doesn’t need remedying is not a remedy.
“Each voter in the city now gets to cast five votes staggered every two years for their five representatives,” she added. “But with districting, voters will only get to cast one vote every four years for only one representative. How is this giving anyone, a minority or not, a bigger voice? This is not a good thing for Solana Beach.”
Heebner said special-interest groups are behind the Shenkman letter.
“The only people who have spoken in favor of the switch have been non-Hispanics who have, in the past, been vocal in their advocacy for what I would call elite causes, not those of any protected class,” she said. “Their causes and concerns aren’t those of the underprivileged or disadvantaged.”
Heebner said those causes include a “desire to build sea walls to protect their bluff-top properties without paying mitigation fees” and letting “developers … have their way.”
“Bottom line, they promote causes wherein he or she with the most money wins, and they are using the Hispanic population to force their will over the whole city,” she added.
Resident Gerri Retman agreed.
“Make no mistake,” she said. “The demand letter … was likely solicited by individuals well known for being aligned with elitist special interest groups in our city, such as developers that want to build over-scaled projects or bluff-top property owners opposed to mitigation fees and even those opposed to reusable bags.
“These very same individuals pop up every election and try to convince you that things like bonding for the Highway 101 renovation was a bad idea or that the city was on the brink of financial disaster,” Retman added. “For over 30 years we’ve had the privilege of voting for two councils.
“Now these individuals want you to believe that our small city of 13,449 residents is racially polarized. It is not,” she said. “And they want you to believe that Hispanic voters living throughout Solana Beach are underrepresented. They are not. Their solution is to divide us.”
Manny Aguilar is president of La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, which was created in 2011 to empower community youth to further their lives in a positive manner and improve resources available to all residents.
He attended a second similar presentation the following night and, speaking as a resident, said he disagrees with some of the statements made.
“Other than Teré Renteria and, to a certain extent Jewel Edson, the Latino community has been underrepresented,” he said. “Some people are angry that we even have to do this but they don’t understand that there is underrepresentation.”
While he said he appreciates many of the things the city has done for the community, he said the efforts have at times fallen short. As an example, he said La Colonia Community Center is falling apart and “no one is advocating for that.”
“I’m also very concerned about dividing the city from east to west,” Aguilar said. “We could get locked into another demographic group. The impact could be very negative for people all over the community, but especially in Eden Gardens.”
He said a council member who lives in the community would have a better understanding of the culture and could represent the residents better.
“This law may not be ideal, but it’s a way to preserve the character of Eden Gardens and other neighborhoods,” he said. “It serves a purpose. As much as we don’t like to do things, sometimes it’s a good thing.”
In his letter, Shenkman stated his client is Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which according to its website is a nonpartisan Latino voter participation organization founded in 1974 to ensure the voting rights of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.
Shenkman claims during the past 20 years not one Latino has emerged as a candidate for the Solana Beach City Council.
Renteria was elected in the early 1990s and served as mayor in 1995. Edson was elected in 2016.
According to census data, 16 percent of Solana Beach’s population is Latino. Of that, about 8 percent are eligible voters, Johnson said.
Shenkman said he is “suspect” when a city that traditionally appoints its mayor begins electing one.
“They should have five districts,” he said. “Anything short of that is still open to a lawsuit under the CVRA.”
Johnson said cities that create four districts with a mayor elected at large “survived a challenge every time.”