Solana Beach quiet on challenge to at-large elections


Solana Beach is staying mum as the April 3 deadline nears for responding to a lawyer’s request that the city abandon its at-large elections for city council.

Part of a campaign that has compelled scores of cities across California over the past five years to switch to district-based voting, Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman sent Solana Beach a letter last month asking the county’s second-smallest city to follow suit.

The Feb. 14 letter alleges that Solana Beach’s practice of having all five council seats chosen by all voters renders its elections “racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution” — a violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

“At-large elections thus allow a bare majority of voters to control every seat, not just the seats in a particular district or a proportional majority of seats,” Shenkman wrote in the letter.

The letter also points to an “alarming absence” of Latino candidates for city council, despite more than 15 percent of the city’s 13,000 residents identifying as Latino in the 2010 census.

“The entire recent election history in Solana Beach is illustrative: during the past 20 years, there has not been one Latino that has emerged as a candidate for the Solana Beach City Council,” the letter states, adding that Solana Beach’s system is “not only … outwardly disturbing, it is also fundamentally hostile towards Latino participation.”

Shenkman has carried out his campaign on behalf of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which over the past five years has taken on one at-large jurisdiction after another. Several Latino residents of Solana Beach urged him to bring the action, Shenkman said in an interview.

No jurisdiction has successfully contested Shenkman’s challenge. In all, more than 80 cities have switched to by-district voting, including Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside, El Cajon and Escondido in the past two years.

The Solana Beach City Council has discussed Shenkman’s challenge once in closed session, and did not schedule the topic on its March 28 meeting agenda, which occurred after press time. Mayor Ginger Marshall said March 26 that she expects the discussion for a future meeting, but did not indicate when that might be.

In a March 27 interview, Shenkman said he believes Solana Beach may be trying to “procrastinate and delay,” as Santee did upon receiving its letter a year ago. Santee officials recently relented and are scheduled to adopt a by-district ordinance next month.

April 3 marks the 45 days required by state law for Solana Beach to file a response.

“Beyond that, they’re open to getting sued,” Shenkman said. “We’re not going to be at the court clerk’s desk at 8:30 a.m. on April 4. But at the same time, we’re not going to just sit idly by, either. It would behoove them to respond.”

He pointed to Mission Viejo, which Shenkman sued last week after its city leaders became embroiled in bitter in-fighting over how to respond.

Most other cities voluntarily—albeit begrudgingly—comply. That wasn’t the case for Shenkman’s first challenge: Palmdale in 2012. City leaders there fought tooth and nail before losing their legal battle in 2015 to the tune of $7 million in court fees and more than $4 million in interest and legal reimbursements.

“Cities now can look to Palmdale or to a lesser extent Highland or Modesto or even Santa Monica to see what happens when you don’t promptly do the right thing, when you choose to fight,” Shenkman said.

Solana Beach and Del Mar are among the final few cities that still use at-large voting. Shenkman said he has reviewed Del Mar but does not recall what was decided. Del Mar Mayor Dwight Worden said he hopes the city will avoid entanglement by virtue of being too small to divide into districts—it has barely 4,000 residents—and its lack of a sizable minority population.