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District Elections In El Cajon Could Bring More Diverse City Council

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Photo by Megan Burks

Campaign signs for El Cajon City Council candidates are planted on the side of the road, Nov. 2, 2016.

Lost in the big news of Election Day was the fact that El Cajon voters approved a measure that will bring a major political shift to their city.

Lost in the big news of Election Day was the fact that El Cajon voters approved a measure that will bring a major political shift to their city.

Currently, council members in El Cajon are elected by the entire city, not by district. Measure S will change that, setting up a system where voters in four regions of the city will each vote on a council member to represent them.

The measure was necessary for the city to avoid lawsuits over the disenfranchisement of voters, said Eric Lund, the CEO of the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce. The organization supported the measure along with El Cajon's mayor, the San Diego County Democratic Party and the Republican Party of San Diego County.

Lund said the El Cajon City Council is "pretty diverse already," but that Measure S could also increase diversity.

"In El Cajon we have a large Chaldean population, so obviously they'll have a lot of influence on some of those elected officials," he said. "We have a large Hispanic community here. When you look at the cultures and the people that are in El Cajon, it's grown a lot."

Before the election, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells told KPBS Midday Edition he supported the measure because of the California legislature. He said a state law says all cities with more than 100,000 people need district elections, and while El Cajon doesn't quite have that population, "technically we could have gotten away with not doing this, but we felt it was the desire of the legislature and didn't see any reason to not do this."

He said the measure might lead to more diverse representation.

"I don't think El Cajon has really been not diverse, but it could certainly change the way people are elected," he said.

The current City Council is made up of four white men, including the mayor, and Star Bales, a Chaldean woman appointed to the council.

Last week Bales lost her seat, and Ben Kalasho, the head of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, was elected. Three seats were open in the election, and the other two were filled by white men, including one incumbent.

Measure S did not have a specific plan for how the districts will be drawn. Now the City Council will collect input from the public and draft an ordinance laying out the four districts' boundaries.

Those districts can be changed at any time, but also will be re-evaluated every 10 years starting with the 2020 census.

Now that the measure is approved, district elections will begin in 2018 for one of the council seats and in 2020 for the remaining three council seats.

Activists and community leaders were also hoping the election would bring council representatives who support setting up a citizens review board for the police department. The calls for this change came after the shooting death of Alfred Olango, an unarmed African man, by an El Cajon police officer.

But that change doesn't look likely. Last week's election brought in Kalasho, who does not support a review board and favors giving police body cameras instead. It also brought the reelection of Bob McClellan, who was on the council when it voted not to implement a review board.

The third councilman elected, Steve Goble, did not respond to a request from KPBS about his views on a citizens review board. Goble was endorsed by the El Cajon Police Officers' Association.

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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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