The Encinitas City Council on Oct. 10 began reviewing proposed maps of how the city could look once it is divided into districts but made no formal decisions at the meeting.
A demographer presented two five-district and three four-district maps to the council, who said its focus is to try to maintain the characters of the city’s five communities.
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.
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.
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.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Council member Tasha Boerner Horvath at the Oct. 5 meeting favored limiting the maps to four districts with an at-large mayor.
Boerner Horvath considered Shenkman a “bully” and believed the city should give the minimum of what he is asking for, which means not giving up Encinitas’ elected mayor.
“The bully has only asked for four of our council seats,” she said. “He hasn’t asked for the mayor. So we shouldn’t give him one more seat. If we’re being forced to do this, I’m going to give him the minimum of what he wants.”
But council member Tony Kranz argued the council should only consider maps with five districts to best maintain community character and suggested Encinitas should not take action until a related case in Poway is settled.
Former Poway Mayor Don Higginson filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month challenging the constitutionality of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Under threat of expensive litigation, Poway became the most recent city in San Diego County to be forced to change the way it elects its city council members, from an at-large system, which is said to violate the voting rights act, to a by-district system.
“It was only because the city of Poway had a proverbial gun to its head that these districts were adopted,” Higginson said. “Every member of the city council knew that it would cost Poway millions of taxpayer dollars to fight this in court.”
Higginson said the law is unconstitutional on its face because it requires gerrymandering based on race or ethnicity.
Council members Mark Muir and Joe Mosca said Encinitas should continue evaluating maps of four or five districts to give residents multiple options.
“I don’t want to change this process mid-stream on the voters,” Muir said, adding the city might consider taking the four or five-district issue to the ballot.
Christopher Skinnell, the special counsel the city hired on districting, advised doing so could pose the city for potential lawsuits.
Seven residents also shared their opinions with the council, with many appearing disheartened that the city is choosing to move to districts in the first place.
Resident Kathleen Lindeman believed districting would not help with minority representation because they are “spread out in pockets throughout the city.” She said the city should fight the matter in court, which the council has decided against to avoid paying high litigation costs.
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.
One other resident said she didn’t see why race had to play a role in the decision in the first place.
“People are people,” she said. “I think we all need to be protective of each other, and I just hope we can keep things as we are.”
Planning Commissioner Kevin Doyle considered districting an “awful idea” but said he hopes future council members will remain interested in Encinitas as a whole, rather than just their individual districts.
“We must ensure that the future councils wont be able to gerrymander districts to their liking,” he said. “Good luck with that, but it must be foolproof.”
Encinitas residents can visit the city’s website, at www.bit.ly/2xTEF4R, to draw their ideas of district boundary maps. That deadline is Oct. 18.
The council has until Nov. 8 to decide on a map, which would be adopted Nov. 15. They added a special meeting on Oct. 30 at 6 p.m. to allow for more time to discuss a possible map. Districts will be implemented in the November 2018 or November 2020 election.