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Opinions vary on benefits of district elections in Solana Beach

As Solana Beach moves toward establishing district elections for City Council members in time for the 2020 election - instead of the current at-large system where every voter can weigh in on all council candidates - there are mixed feelings about the potential benefits of the change, and whether it's even necessary.

The push toward district elections began in February when a Malibu-based attorney sent a letter to the city, alleging that the city's current at-large election system dilutes the votes of Latinos, causing them to be under-represented on the City Council. The letter alleged that the city's election method violates the California Voting Rights Act, and it threatened a lawsuit if the city didn't change to district elections.

Since then, the city has agreed to make the change, while denying that it is in violation of the voting rights act, or that the city's elections are racially polarized. Some residents urged the city to fight the challenge, while others welcome the change as an opportunity for better representation in city government.

Among the latter camp is Manny Aguilar, a resident of La Colonia de Eden Gardens, a historically Latino section of the city. The 2010 census found that about 15 percent of the city's 13,000 residents identified themselves as Hispanic.

"We need to have district elections. It's proven that when you have district elections, you have more diversity on the council," Aguilar said.

Since Solana Beach incorporated, said Aguilar, there have been only two Latinas elected to council - former two-term Councilwoman Theresa Renteria, and current Councilwoman Jewel Edson, who is part Latina.

Aguilar contends that the La Colonia park and community center are in disrepair, and that if the neighborhood had a representative on the council, things would be different and the neighborhood would get more resources from the city.

While Edson does attend community meetings in La Colonia, he said, she doesn't live in the neighborhood. "We need more," he said.

But Victor Tostado, a long-time resident of an area east of I-5, said the city is doing fine with at-large elections, and that if people from La Colonia want better representation, they are free to run for City Council, or speak their mind at City Council or committee meetings.

As a small city, said Tostado, "I don't see a need for district representation. I think it would be somewhat divisive to have that happen."

Tosdado, who along with Aguilar serves on the board of the La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, and has been active in La Colonia as a volunteer and community leader, said he hasn't seen people from the neighborhood who are willing to make the time commitment necessary to serve on the council. In Tostado's view, the council has done a good job of representing the interests of the entire city, including La Colonia, whether it is money for fixing streets or devoting law enforcement resources to battling crime and gang issues.

"I don't see that area being under-represented," he said.

Aguilar conceded there is a dearth of Latino candidates for council, and suggested that a combination of factors is to blame - the involvement of special interests in selecting candidates, the sometimes-ugly nature of today's political climate, and the fact that many residents are too busy with work and family obligations.

Some residents also would like better geographical representation - particularly those who live east of the I-5 freeway, such as Roger Boyd.

Both Aguilar and Boyd favor dividing the city into five council districts, rather than four as some have suggested, with the mayor's post remaining an at-large seat. The two said the current system of rotating the mayor among the five council members on an annual basis has worked fine.

They also suggested that the council districts should be aligned on a north-south basis, rather than from east to west, to keep from splitting neighborhoods between council districts.

Under such a scenario, said Boyd, there could be two districts east of the freeway and three to the west.

"Therefore we would get our turn at representation more fairly than we do now," said Boyd. "I'm happy with how the city is run but it hasn't been fair."

While Deputy Mayor David Zito acknowledged that some residents perceive they are under-represented by the current election system, he said he is not convinced that district elections will make much of a difference. Currently, he said, residents can contact any one of the five council members with a concern or suggestion, but that could change if council members are elected by district, and their focus is more on their own slice of the city.

"It's a small city so it's easy to get involved and know the issues all over the community" he said.

He also rejected any suggestion that the current system is racially biased.

"Our solid and firm belief is there's no racial polarization in Solana Beach," Zito said. "The decision (to transition to district elections) has been made largely because of the legal exposure. It's a business decision."

On Wednesday, May 23, the City Council unanimously approved an agreement with the National Demographic Corp. to serve as a consultant for the city's transition to district elections. City officials have estimated the cost of the transition will range between $100,000 and $175,000.

A special council meeting was set for Wednesday, May 30, to allow for public comment and council discussion regarding about 30 proposed maps that have been published on the city's website. By the time of a hearing set for June 26, the council is scheduled to decide on a final electoral map. The decision would then be finalized on July 11, but would not take effect until the 2020 election.

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