Council to move ahead with district elections

Encinitas will continue to move to district elections, despite opposition from residents at the second public hearing on the subject Sept. 20.

The Encinitas City Council voted unanimously at the meeting to approve staff recommendation to guide the creation of draft district boundaries and set a deadline of Oct. 18 for submissions of proposed district maps from the public.

Prior to the meeting, in closed session, Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz and Council member Mark Muir opposed the move to district elections, but said during the public hearing they would support the transition and their colleagues. Initially, they said the city should take more time to weigh their options.

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.

The city received a letter July 20 from Santa Monica-based attorney Kevin Shenkman, who threatened to sue the city if it did not move to district elections.

In his four-page letter, Shenkman said Encinitas is diluting the votes of minorities with its current at-large election system, thus violating the state's Voting Rights Act of 2001.

He also accused Encinitas of being discriminatory against Latinos, saying 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.

In August, the city council declared its intent to move toward district elections to avoid litigation and is deciding whether to implement four districts with an at-large mayor or five districts with a rotating mayor.

Residents at the Sept. 20 hearing expressed their dissatisfaction with the move to district elections. Many said they believed the claims Shenkman made in his letter are dubious since Encinitas does not have a large Latino population or related issues.

According to the 2010 census, 14 percent of Encinitas' population is Latino. In Palmdale — the only city to fight Shenkman in court before ultimately losing the battle — nearly 59 percent of its residents identify as Latino, according to the census.

Further, residents argued, there are no concentrated areas of Latinos in Encinitas, and breaking the city up into districts could actually make it harder for a Latino representative to be elected.

Former Mayor Sheila Cameron believes the city should fight the matter in court and hire a legal team to analyze "both sides of the coin." Right now, she said, the consultant the city hired is solely focusing on how to move to district elections, rather than what a court battle could look like.

One resident, who said he recently moved to Encinitas from North Carolina, said his former town went through a similar battle. He said Encinitas should protect itself from being "divided by extortionists."

"I'm just a small little country boy who knows all you gotta do is go after some money," he said. "They say they're concerned about Hispanics but I think this is all about money."

However, Mayor Catherine Blakespear contended the city should not fight the battle in court.

She said no city has won a legal action lawsuit regarding this, and Encinitas would be a "test city."

In a city document, city staff said if Encinitas were to defend a potential lawsuit, the defense costs and attorneys' fees would likely exceed $1 million, with additional exposure exceeding $1 million for plaintiff attorney fees should the city not prevail.

The city should instead focus spending on other projects, such as road improvements and safety downtown, Blakespear said.

"You gotta know when to hold them and when to fold them," she said. "Our current system is good and working, but that doesn't mean other systems can't work, too."

Encinitas residents can visit the city's website, at bit.ly/2xTEF4R, to draw their ideas of district boundary maps. A workshop will also be held Oct. 7 at Cardiff Elementary School, where people can learn more information about the transition and share how they think the boundaries should look.

The city is expected to adopt a map at a Nov. 15 meeting. Districts will be implemented in the November 2018 or November 2020 election.

Council member Joe Mosca suggested at the Sept. 6 council meeting that the city's best option could be horizontal districts from east to west so each council member represents important corridors such as Coast Highway 101 and El Camino Real. He also wanted to avoid people solely identifying with coastal and inland living.

Steven Winters, of Olivenhain, at the Sept. 20 hearing, said horizontal-based districts would "disrespect communities of interest" in the north and south.

Planning Commissioner Kevin Doyle, of Leucadia, agreed, adding "homogenous strips would result in homogenous representatives.”

He said Encinitas does not have nearly as many Latino residents as other cities that did not initially comply with Shenkman’s demands.

Shenkman has targeted many cities around California to move from at-large elections to district elections. In San Diego County, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Poway and Vista recently made the moves to district elections to avoid litigation from Shenkman.

The city of Huntington Beach has expressed interest in fighting Shenkman in court. Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates contends Latinos in the coastal Orange County city can be "adequately represented in an at-large system, partly because the vast majority of Latino residents are not concentrated in certain areas of the city," he said in a Daily Pilot newspaper interview.

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