Encinitas received a letter in July from Shenkman & Hughes, an attorney targeting a number of North County cities to get them to move from at-large (elected by the whole city) to district elections (voted by a portion of the city) per the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Logistically, the City has until early September to voluntarily decide to move to districting or face a potential lawsuit by Shenkman, who has sued many other California cities. If we voluntarily move to districting, we have a 90-day grace period -- early December -- to finalize all maps and timing for elections in 2018. The process requires at least two public hearings before maps and timelines are created and at least two public hearings afterwards. This is a very short timeline for something so important, so on Wednesday we reported from closed session that we directed staff to move forward with public hearings for the districting process.
The idea is that by shifting to districts, “communities of interest” -- in Shenkman's view, latino voters -- will have a greater ability to elect representatives who will be responsive to their concerns. To make the claim stick in court, the plaintiffs have to demonstrate that there is racially polarized voting, but the CVRA has set the bar pretty low for what constitutes evidence. And to date no city has been able to win a CVRA claim in court. Of the over 25 cities who have chosen to contest CVRA claims in court, all have chosen eventually to settle or lost outright. The only city that was willing to spend the money to fight in court was Palmdale, who lost the case.
The question is, should the buck stop with Encinitas? While Encinitas might have a good case for fighting districting, and, to be honest, the sequential CVRA letters feel a bit like bullying, the reality is a court case will cost over $1 million and that is if we win and it doesn't go to appeal. CVRA puts the city on the hook for the plaintiff's attorney's fees, ensuring that any litigation is very expensive.
Representation versus Governance
Right now at-large Council Members have to represent multiple intersecting interests of our city to get elected. This results in elected officials invested in balancing competing interests within out city and good city-wide policies. On the other hand, when a city council member represents more concentrated interests, this increases voter representation and better translates the voice of the people to government. And, by and large, more responsive representation is generally considered better for democracy. The down side is that there is little institutional incentive to make the best policy for the city if it comes at a cost for the district. Previously diluted voices may be louder, but crafting good city-wide policy may be harder.
Communities of interest and district characteristics
The districting process is complex and focuses on representation of "communities of interest." Shenkman focused on latino voters, so our demographer will help us to keep this community of interest together in a way that makes sense for Encinitas and prevents further threat of litigation.
I have also received emails from a number of Encinitas residents that fear that districting may carve up our five communities in a way that leads to a loss of their importance. This is a very concerning aspect of districting. The important of our five communities has been enshrined in our General Plan and is something that I am personally dedicated to preserving as much as possible. To me, that is one of our most important "communities of interest." Other considerations in creating a district to consider include making districts about equal in population and ensuring every district has some business and some residential zones.
One of the important aspects to me is that the public hearings ask our residents what are the important communities of interest, what are the most important aspects for the council to consider when choosing a map and ensuring proper public outreach. I am hopeful that we will be able to hold at least one or two workshops on a weekend where more people can participate and at least two locations -- one coastal and one inland. An important thing to note is that any maps approved out of this process would be valid until 2020, at which time new census data may slightly modify the boundaries of the districts.
Please be a part of the solution!
Regardless of what you think about districting, this process will affect the governing of our city for decades to come. Please be involved, attend (or watch) the Council meetings and if you have any questions, feel free to give me a call, send an email or set up an appointment.