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District elections process moves forward

Encinitas officials said Wednesday they were not prepared to declare that the city is definitely transitioning to district elections, but voted to start the 90-day process of crafting the possible new voting map.

The city is the latest in North County to take the procedural step in the wake of a series of legal demand letters from Malibu-based law firm Shenkman and Hughes that alleges the city’s current citywide, or at-large, voting process dilutes Latino voting power.

The council unanimously voted in favor of staff’s recommendation, which authorizes City Manager Karen Brust to hire a demographic contractor to help the city draw proposed district maps and allocated $150,000 to pay for other legal and professional services needed to complete the process.

The vote starts a 90-day period in which the city will host public workshops and five public hearings that will help the city craft the voting districts. During this period, the city is shielded from any lawsuits, thanks to a provision of the state voting rights act known as the “safe harbor.”

At the end of the 90 days, the council must decide whether it will establish district elections or whether it will maintain its current system and fight any lawsuits filed challenging it.

The council made its decision following a public hearing in which eight of the nine speakers urged the city to fight the lawsuit.

The speakers, including former council members Lisa Shaffer and Sheila Cameron, said the city has elected two council members of Hispanic heritage — Lou Aspell and Teresa Arballo Barth — as well as appointed and hired Latino officials, including former Planning Commissioner Ruben Dario Flores and former City Manager Gus Vina.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman’s legal demand, they said, incorrectly stated that Encinitas had never elected a Latino representative to the council.

“There is no reason to believe election would lead to more Latino representation,” Shaffer said. “I think (fighting the lawsuit) would be $1 million well spent.”

One speaker, however, said that the city should move to district elections.

“Those of us who live in New Encinitas … feel that sometime the City Council neglects us,” said Joan Gosewisch, a New Encinitas resident.  “I feel if we have district elections we will be heard within our district. I think we deserve that.”

The City Council on Wednesday appeared unanimous in their belief that the city’s current system didn’t disenfranchise Latino voters, but were split on whether the city should fight the legal threat.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear and council members Tasha Boerner Horvath and Joe Mosca said they didn’t believe it was worth risking millions in legal fees to challenge it in court.

Blakespear said she believed Shenkman would bring up the city’s lack of an affordable housing policy in any lawsuit.

“The plaintiff will without question make those connections between affordable housing and our Latino community,” Blakespear said. “Regardless of how vociferously we point out our Latino events and the election of Teresa Barth, the optics are not good.”

Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz said he wasn’t prepared to declare either way whether the city should fight the legal threat or make the transition, but wanted to wait until he received more demographic information from consultants before making his decision. Councilman Mark Muir said he would make his ultimate decision based on the legal analysis.

Kranz said that he believed the demographic data the city would receive from National Demographer Corporation would serve a dual purpose of helping the city craft the proposed district maps and possibly bolster a potential legal defense against Shenkman’s lawsuit. 

“Personally, this isn’t the time to make a decision to fight or not,” Kranz said. “I am not prepared tonight to say it’s worth a fight, I think it’s important we have the facts in front of us. But I am relatively certain we are right with the law and it’s worth defending.”

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