Residents warn that adopted district elections may bring citizen lawsuits

OCEANSIDE — City Council voted 3-1 to adopt district elections on Aug. 1 to avoid a lawsuit from attorney Kevin Shenkman, which the city said it could not win. A letter from Shenkman claimed current at-large elections do not ensure equal representation of city minority groups.

Councilman Jack Feller voted against district elections at the meeting and Mayor Jim Wood was absent.

A sizable audience attended the meeting, most with signs and comments opposing district elections. Speakers cited residents losing 75 percent of their voting right by being limited to voting for one City Council member, districts sparking neighborhood-serving interests and elected offices inadequately representing minorities.

Comments included a warning to City Council that citizen lawsuits might follow.

A few residents spoke in support of the hastily adopted district elections and districts map, which can be adjusted following the next census count in 2020.

“It may not be the exact thing we need, but it can be changed in a few years and we can see how it works,” Oceanside resident Richard Fox said.

Former Oceanside Mayor Terry Johnson supported the change. He served on City Council for 12 years, including four years as the city’s first black mayor.

“It’s about time,” Johnson said.

Following public comments Councilman Jack Feller stated his opposition to district elections, and disappointment about the limited input collected to form the districts map within 90 days to avoid Shenkman’s lawsuit.

“I could never see this as a good idea,” Feller said. “One hundred fifty people isn’t a (city) majority,” he said of the amount of residents said to have participated in community meetings to form the map.

“People know about it, but have no idea of its impact. We’ll be a united body until 2020 (when all council members are elected by district).”

After the meeting, 2016 City Council candidate Steve Hasty shared details on possible lawsuits. Hasty said a Protect Oceanside Voters Facebook page was established to protest city district elections.

The popularity of the message grew into a No Districting California effort to address district elections nationwide.

Hasty said donations have been collected to retain an attorney and sue the state for the 2001 Voting Rights Act, which allows Shenkman’s lawsuit.

“We raised funds and are ready to file a lawsuit,” Hasty said.

The cities of Chula Vista, El Cajon, Escondido, San Diego, San Marcos and Vista have recently moved to district-based elections, many due to the threat of a lawsuit by Shenkman, who has also sued California cities outside of San Diego County.

Huntington Beach is not changing to district elections after receiving a letter from Shenkman threatening a lawsuit. Hasty and others at the Aug. 1 meeting said Oceanside should also stand strong.

“We believe, and factually, our case is stronger than Huntington Beach,” Oceanside resident Sean Coleman said.

Hasty said a citizen lawsuit may also be filed against Oceanside for denying City Council candidates the right to run in 2018 elections because they do not live in districts 1 or 2, which will be voted on.

“Districts prohibit me from running next year, I want to run but you’re taking away that right,” Hasty said to the council.

Hasty added that residents had extensive conversations with City Council members before considering lawsuits.

“They (City Council) should be more concerned with the lawsuits they created tonight,” Hasty said.

The adopted districts map and election calendar sets City Council elections for districts 1 and 2 for 2018, and elections for districts 3 and 4 for 2020.


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