Council continues to explore transition to district elections

As the Encinitas City Council on Sept. 6 continued deliberating how to transition Encinitas into district elections, the council members agreed that one thing would not change — the five distinct communities.

Whether the council moves to five districts and a rotating mayor, or four districts with an elected mayor, would not change the established communities of Cardiff, New Encinitas, Old Encinitas, Leucadia and Olivenhain, the council members said.

"If you live in Olivenhain today, you will live in Olivenhain tomorrow," Council member Joe Mosca vowed.

But Chris Skinnell, the special counsel the city hired to help develop the district plan, said because of the diverse populations in each community, it would be impossible to have the districts and communities be one in the same. For example, the city’s largest community, New Encinitas, current has about 17,000 residents. In comparison, Olivenhain has about 5,500 residents.

Three residents came to the meeting to speak regarding their opposition to the city moving to district elections, a decision the city council unanimously agreed to at its Aug. 30 meeting. The residents said people take pride in their communities and worried how districting may affect that.

"This seems really divisive," said resident Lori Michaels. "It's really carving [the city] up into a very segmented pie."

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 complied with his demands.

Palmdale has so far been the only city to contest Shenkman in court, but ultimately lost in trial.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear considered districting an important transition to avoid litigation.

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.

"We would be a test case because there is not a settled case in this," Blakespear said. "It's about choosing your battles, and I don't think this is a battle we should be choosing."

Each council member seemed to not completely be in favor of districting but agreed with Blakespear.

Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz suggested the decision for four districts with an elected mayor, or five districts and a rotating mayor, should be left to the voters. He also suggested a scientific survey in conjunction with the city's decision on how to regulate marijuana.

Blakespear opposed the election, citing the city's need to make a decision within 90 days to avoid a lawsuit.

During the 90-day period, the city will work with a demographer to develop a series of maps with options for how the city could be districted. Residents are also invited to share their thoughts in public forums and make maps of their own on paper and through an online program in the coming weeks. The next public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 20.

Mosca suggested putting an overlay for elections but not changing community boundaries. He also said the city's best option could be districts going east to west so each council member is representing important corridors like Coast Highway 101 and El Camino Real. He also wanted to avoid people solely identifying with coastal and inland living.

Council member Tasha Boerner Horvath said districting could be a positive thing to give more residents a chance to voice their opinions.

"The voices of each person in that district are louder because there's someone representing them," she said.

Blakespear said regardless of what happens with the districting, the communities and their characters will stay intact.

"Community character is not maintained by the electeds," she said. "It's the events and the feelings and the people who put those on."

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