Encinitas to move toward district elections following lawsuit threat

Encinitas will move toward implementing district elections, following a litigation threat from an attorney representing rights for minorities.

The Encinitas City Council on Aug. 16 announced after closed session that it will direct staff to begin the hearing process to end its citywide elections and move to district elections.

Currently, Encinitas residents are asked to vote for two at-large candidates for city council and one candidate for mayor every two years. In the past, the mayor was a rotating position.

Encinitas faced criticism from an attorney who successfully targeted Carlsbad, Oceanside, Poway and Vista to implement district elections.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman threatened Encinitas with a lawsuit if the city did not respond by Sept. 2.

"Instead of spending millions of dollars and wasting years in litigation, the Encinitas City Council chose to begin the process of moving our at-large election system to a district system whereby our city council will be elected from districts," council member Joe Mosca said in his weekly e-mail newsletter.

In a four-page letter received by the city on July 20, Shenkman, a Malibu attorney, wrote that Encinitas is diluting the votes of minorities with its current at-large election system and thus has violated the state's Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Moreover, Shenkman wrote, the city has a long history of hostility toward Latinos as evidenced by the fact that its first mayor repeatedly made racist statements during council meetings in the late 1980s.

He said the comments from Marjorie Gaines — who died in 1995 — "likely deterred Latinos from running for City Council for many years after her term."

In his letter, Shenkman noted that Encinitas has a total population that is 13.7 percent Latino, yet has not elected a Latino council member in its history.

"The contrast between the significant Latino proportion of the electorate and the total absence of Latinos to be elected to the City Council is telling," he wrote.

Carlsbad, Oceanside and Vista are all expected to shift to district-based elections in 2018 after being threatened by Shenkman.

Encinitas, which incorporated in 1986, has five distinct communities, each with their own characters — Cardiff, Leucadia, Olivenhain, Old Encinitas and New Encinitas — Mayor Catherine Blakespear said in a recent interview with The San Diego-Union Tribune.

It is likely that Encinitas will follow the other North County cities by leaving the mayor's spot an at-large election position and drawing up four districts for the council seats, Blakespear told the Union-Tribune.

San Diego Union-Tribune freelance writer Barbara Henry contributed to this report.

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