Encinitas residents have one word for an out-of-the-area lawyer trying to force the city into district elections: no.
But the city council, seemingly stuck between a rock and a hard place, was swayed by too many risks, including the loss of as much as six figures or more from the general fund. It voted unanimously at its Aug. 30 meeting to begin the motions to comply with the demands of Santa Monica-based attorney Kevin Shenkman.
Shenkman — who successfully targeted Carlsbad, Oceanside, Poway and Vista to implement district elections — accused Encinitas of being discriminatory against Latinos and threatened the city with a lawsuit if it did not move to district elections.
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.
"It's not a question of if it's fair or right," said Council member Tasha Boerner Horvath, adding she believes there is no evidence the city is discriminatory. "It comes down to a fundamental question: can we win? ... I think our chances of losing are actually really high."
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.
During a 90-day period, city staff, a hired demographer and special counsel will work to create maps for four districts with an at-large mayor or five districts with a rotating mayor.
In Shenkman's four-page letter, dated July 20, he 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 said 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.
But residents argued that's not the case.
They contended there have actually been two Latino council members, Teresa Arballo Barth and Mary Lou "Lou" Aspell. The population in the city is also dispersed, and a district with a hispanic majority doesn't exist, residents said. Limiting the number of districts to four would also make it difficult for the city to maintain its five communities and their unique characters, they said.
"This process will cost us millions either way, so use our tax dollars to fight it," said former mayor Sheila Cameron.
Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz also suggested the city should do research to see if it has a defensible case before making a rushed decision.
If the city were to move to districts, they should go to two districts and elect the top two candidates from each of those areas, said former deputy mayor Lisa Shaffer. Another option would be for the city to have five districts and a rotating mayor, which would completely rule out at-large elections.
The council was urged to place a measure on the upcoming 2018 ballot for voters to decide if they want four districts with an at-large mayor or five districts with a rotating mayor.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear said while she believes the current election system is working and districting wouldn't be an improvement, the "risks significantly outweigh the benefits."
She compared Shenkman's threat with the housing element lawsuits Encinitas has faced over the years. She also believes the city's failure to develop a state-compliant housing element could be used against them in court.
"That's the dollar signs ringing up and ringing up," she said. "Our backs are up against the wall."
City Manager Karen Brust was directed to come back to the council with a communication strategy and identify the team working on the project.