SOLANA BEACH — Rather than fight what would likely be a losing legal battle, council members at the April 11 meeting agreed to transition from at-large to district-based elections beginning in 2020.
With council vacancies, registrar of voter deadlines and five required public hearings, the city attorney said “it is fiscally not possible” to make the change before this year’s election on Nov. 6.
But Kevin Shenkman, the Malibu-based attorney who in a letter urged Solana Beach to voluntarily make the switch, said those aren’t valid reasons for “holding one more illegal election.”
“I compliment them for doing the right thing, for the most part,” he said. “The issue of the timing kind of distresses me. Their rationale for wanting to draw the process out is a misguided approach to the districting process.”
Since Solana Beach became a city more than 30 years ago, residents have selected all five council members in at-large elections, which allow voters to pick candidates from anywhere in the city for each open seat.
Under the new system, candidates must reside in the district they represent and only voters in that area can elect them.
In his letter — dated Feb. 14 and received by the city Feb. 20 — Shenkman stated such elections violate the California Voting Rights Act because they can diminish the ability of minority groups to elect preferred candidates.
He also wrote that voting in Solana Beach “is racially polarized” and the “lack of representation for Latinos has been a long-standing issue.”
City Manager Greg Wade said the letter “contains many factual inaccuracies, which clearly underscores the author’s lack of familiarity with … Solana Beach and its history of diversity in the makeup of its City Council.”
City officials had 45 days from the receipt of the letter — or until April 6 — to take action or face legal consequences.
Several jurisdictions statewide, including the North County cities of Oceanside, Carlsbad and Encinitas, opted to switch to district-based elections during the past two years after receiving similar letters threatening legal action from Shenkman.
Palmdale, the only city that went to trial to fight the change, spent more than $4.5 million on that unsuccessful attempt. Other cities spent between $1 million and $3 million on settlements before eventually changing their systems.
California law does not require that a minority group demonstrates it is sufficiently large and geographically compact enough to create a majority-minority district.
According to the 2010 census, about 2,000 people, or 16 percent of the 12,867 residents living in Solana Beach, were Hispanic or Latino. There are currently approximately 8,500 registered voters.
According to state law, once a city declares its intent to make the transition it has at least 90 days before litigation can be filed.
“This is where it got a little tricky for Solana Beach,” City Attorney Johanna Canlas said, adding that the election code requires all information to be submitted at least 125 days — July 4 this year — before an election.
She said the registrar of voters needed an additional 30 to 45 days for verification, putting the city’s deadline to submit the newly created district information between May 20 and June 4.
Complicating the effort is the fact that two council members abruptly resigned in March and April, she said. Former Councilwoman Lesa Heebner was appointed to complete the term of Mike Nichols. A replacement for Ginger Marshall is scheduled to be selected April 25.
“There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t get it done by then,” Shenkman said. “The absence of one City Council member has no impact on the districts. Electeds are not supposed to choose their voters. Voters are supposed to provide input on the process.”
Three of the five speakers at the April 11 meeting urged the city to make the switch this year.
Roger Boyd said holding one public hearing a week would allow the city to take advantage of the “safe harbor” period.
“That probably isn’t realistic,” he said. “I think the fiscal advantage of doing it sooner rather than later is really significant.”
“This could be done if the City Council wanted to,” Gary Garber said. “This is going to happen. The sooner the better, and it’s going to save everyone a lot of time and aggravation.”
“I would rather see you be ahead of the ball along with the other cities who are starting this this year,” Jane Morton added.
Kelly Harless disagreed.
“I feel like this needs a very thoughtful process and lots of conversation because the ramifications are big for our city,” she said. “I … want to make sure we’re not in a position where neighbor is pitted against neighbor. We’re 4 square miles. This should be considered very, very carefully before launching forward if we have that opportunity.”
Councilman Dave Zito agreed.
“Do we really have this polarized voting?” he asked. “Do we really have districts that can be formed to help to rectify that? It would be very unfortunate if we went down a path that was not even clearly in the line with what we’re supposed to be doing.
“Relatively speaking, we have really good representation here,” he added. “We’re all accessible to everybody. … There’s merit to be said for the minority representation, but I think when we get into doing the demographics we’re going to find out there’s absolutely no way to create a majority-minority district in Solana Beach. … so the remedy won’t be that obvious.”
Noting the process outlined by the state should take three months, he questioned whether it could be done properly within such a short time frame.
“How in the world can we create districts that make sense for the city of Solana Beach in a period of 90 days?” he asked. “I think that it’s more important to take the time to do it right.”
“Get the necessary public feedback so people feel like they’re engaged and involved in the process,” he added. “We mess this up and it’s years’ worth of pain.”
Shenkman said if he was convinced the city was acting in good faith, he would try to be flexible.
“I’m hoping they will follow the law,” he added.
Shenkman also recommended the city continue the historical practice of rotating rather than electing the mayor.