Solana Beach signaled its intent last week to switch from at-large elections to a district-based voting system—but beginning in 2020 rather than this November’s election, citing an untenable timeline and a council vacancy created by a pair of surprise resignations over the past two months.
With two days left before an April 13 deadline, the city council 11 voted 4-0 on April 11 to file a “resolution of intent” that gives the city 90 days of safe harbor against legal action from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman. In February, Shenkman added Solana Beach to the dozens of jurisdictions he’s compelled in the last five years to switch to district-based voting. He alleges that Solana Beach’s at-large elections—in which all five council seats are open to all of the city’s 8,500 registered voters—discourage Latino candidates and dilute the Latino vote in violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA).
Roughly 15 percent of the city’s 13,500 residents identified as Latino in the 2010 census.
The week before Shenkman’s demand letter arrived, Councilman Mike Nichols resigned his seat unexpectedly. City officials had wanted to fill that vacancy before voting on a next step, but then-Mayor Ginger Marshall resigned in March. Former Councilwoman Lesa Heebner was appointed April 11 to serve out Nichols’ term, but Marshall’s seat won’t be filled until April 25 at the earliest.
“We did feel it was important that—this being such a monumental decision—we try our best to have a full body here,” said Deputy Mayor Dave Zito.
Given the vacancy and a state mandate to hold five public meetings for gathering feedback, City Attorney Joanna Canlas said “it is physically not possible” to finalize the districts ahead of the early July deadline for this November’s election.
In an interview, Shenkman bristled at the city’s concern over the empty council seat.
“The absence of one councilmember doesn’t change the timeline that the legislature has established,” he said. “It’s a really kind of insulting argument. The councilmembers are not supposed to be choosing their voters; the voters are supposed to be choosing their council members. That’s why the legislature expanded the required number of public meetings from two to five. All of that reflects the legislature’s view that it is the public that is supposed to provide input, not councilmembers.”
A handful of residents at the April 11 hearing supported waiting until 2020, while an equal number called on the city to expedite the map-drawing process in time for 2018.
“We’ve talked to attorneys. This could be done if the city council wanted to,” said resident Gary Garber. “My suggestion is the sooner the better, and it’s going to save everyone a lot of time and aggravation.”
But the council chose the more deliberative course, troubled by the prospect of hurrying such a complex and far-reaching decision.
“Can you really do a good job in 90 days? And to be thinking of trying to shorten that process is really kind of frightening,” Zito said. “… It’s more important to take the time … to do it right and to get the necessary public feedback so that people feel like they’re engaged and involved in the process—and more importantly, to take a look at are we actually remedying what we’ve been accused of. We need to find if there is a problem here. Do we really have this polarized voting? Do we really have districts that can be formed that can rectify that?”
Zito added that the council is already doing a good job representing the city’s Latino residents, and that a map-based solution will be hard to come by.
“I think when we get into doing the demographics, we’re going to find out there’s absolutely no way to create a majority-minority district in Solana Beach,” he said. “I think we just know that based upon the current demographics, and so the remedy won’t be that obvious.”
A district with a Latino majority, however, is not needed to fulfill CRVA’s ultimate goal of empowering underrepresented voters, Shenkman said.
“There’s nothing magical about 51 percent. Sometimes districts can be effective at 30 percent and 40 percent,” he said.
He pointed to San Juan Capistrano, where now-Mayor Sergio Farias finished far down the ballot in at-large elections, but after that city created voting districts in 2016, Farias won in a district that was roughly 40 percent Latino.
Whatever his misgivings, Shenkman’s hands are tied until the 90-day deadline.
“Conceivably on Day 91 we could file a lawsuit,” he said. “We don’t want to, but if we get the sense that Solana Beach is delaying the process through some nefarious intent, we might have to.”