Solana Beach council opts for four council districts and at-large mayor

Solana Beach is headed toward adopting a plan to hold district elections for City Council members in 2020, with the City Council favoring a map with four council districts and an at-large mayor elected by the entire city, rather than a map with five council districts and the mayor's post rotating among council members as is the current practice.

"It's pretty much unanimously agreed that having a four-district approach with a city-wide elected mayor was the best approach," said Deputy Mayor David Zito, following a May 30 workshop meeting to consider various potential election maps. The council voted 4-0 to consider two potential maps, both with four council districts and an at-large mayor. Councilman Peter Zahn was absent, but he sent a letter that largely concurs with the council's consensus.

The four-district plan met with approval by members of the public at two workshop meetings in mid-May. However, at the May 30 meeting, the majority of public speakers favored a map with five council districts.

Manny Aguilar, a resident and community leader in La Colonia de Eden Gardens, the city's historically Latino enclave, had pushed for the five-district option as a way of enhancing representation for his neighborhood and other communities in the city.

"It seems like they were predisposed toward going for four districts and an (at-large) mayor. It was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected," Aguilar said.

While the maps favored by the council did not split La Colonia, thus preserving the neighborhood's integrity and concentrating the Latino vote predominantly in one council district, Aguilar noted that other neighborhoods are split.

"I know it was a tough job to do this work, but it would have been more inclusive to take into consideration the input that was given for five districts, I believe it would have (provided) better representation," Aguilar said.

Zito conceded that some neighborhoods or homeowners associations may be split between council districts, but he said the city is trying to avoid that wherever possible.

"That's one of the downsides of districting. There will be some neighborhood somewhere divided," he said.

As for the four-district option, Zito said the council feels strongly that every Solana Beach voter should be able to cast ballots for at least two council representatives, which is the case under the four-district plan, since voters will be able to vote on their own council member, plus the mayor.

It is also important, he said, for multiple council districts to touch on key areas such as the coast and the Lomas Santa Fe commercial corridor, so those areas fall into the districts of more than a single council member. The advantage of an at-large mayor, he said, is that the individual would have an interest in issues affecting the entire city.

The city embarked on its transition to district elections in April, after receiving a letter from a Malibu attorney, who threatened a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act. Currently, all five council members are elected on an at-large basis by the entire city electorate.

The letter by attorney Kevin Shenkman alleged that the city's at-large system of electing council members discourages Latino candidates and dilutes Latino votes.

City officials including council members have strongly rejected those allegations, but said they opted to change to district elections to avoid litigation that could cost millions of dollars.

Even so, residents such as Aguilar contend that district elections will bring more diversity to the council. Until now, only two Latinas have been elected to the council over the city's 32-year history - Theresa Renteria in 1992 and 1996, and current Councilwoman Jewel Edson, who is half-Latina.

Under state law, once the city begins the process of transitioning to district elections, it has 90 days to complete the task. The next discussion will take place at a special meeting on June 26, when the council could adopt a final map. The plan would then come back to the council on July 11 for final adoption.

Due to deadlines set by the county registrar of voters, the change could not be completed in time for this year's election. Instead, the first district elections are on track for 2020.

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