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Vista To Consider Changing From Citywide To District Elections

Vista City Hall, 2014

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Vista City Hall, 2014

Vista To Consider Changing From Citywide To District Elections


Alison St. John, North County reporter, KPBS


Vista City Council will decide Tuesday night whether to change the way council members are elected. Vista could be the next city in San Diego County to make the change, but it won’t be the last.

The Vista City Council will consider Tuesday night whether to change the way council members are elected. A change would mean council members will no longer represent the whole city but just individual districts. Vista could be the next city in the county to make the change. But it won’t be the last.

A legal sea change that began with the passage of the California Voting Rights Act in 2001 is sweeping through jurisdictions around the state.

Vista is responding to a letter from a Malibu attorney who is threatening to sue if the city does not change to voting by district. The Voting Rights Act says citywide or “at–large” elections dilute minority votes.

About half of Vista’s population is Hispanic, but only one of five council members is currently a Latino.

Councilman John Aguilera said campaigning by district would be less expensive than campaigning city wide. But for small cities like Vista, which is just 17 square miles and has a population of just under 100,000, he questioned the value. Representing a district, he said, rather than the whole city is likely to be divisive.

“The politicians are going to be the ones that benefit from this, not the community of Vista, ”Aguilera said, “and in the end it’s the attorneys that make all the money on the deal.”

Aguilera said city staff told him fighting the suit could cost the city half a million dollars or more.

“You know there’s a lot of people out there that want to fight regardless, but we have to look out for what’s best for the city as a whole financially.”

The attorney who has threatened to file suit against Vista, Kevin Shenkman, has openly acknowledged that suing cities under the California Voting Rights Act is like a cottage industry for him.

Lawsuits in California began forcing jurisdictions to change to district elections around 2004. Modesto spent about $3 million fighting the change in court and lost. Palmdale had to pay more than $4 million in legal fees to Shenkman after they lost their case. That cost, of course, didn't include the cost of their own attorneys.

Escondido was challenged in 2011. Mayor Sam Abed vowed to fight.

“I would rather pay $3 million and not divide this community,” he said.

Bu the city ultimately went to district elections in 2014 and became the first North County city to do so. Escondido city attorney Jeff Epp said legal costs were kept to a minimum.

“My recollection is that we spent approximately $180,000 before actually going to districts,” Epp wrote. “We had some consulting expenses and so forth afterwards to create our Independent Districting Commission, but they were not significant.”

The make-up of the Escondido city council has not changed as a result of the last district elections. Epp said it may take time for more minority candidates to come forward.

San Marcos and Chula Vista both saw the writing on the wall and changed to voting by district last year.

El Cajon will hold it’s first district elections next year, after approving Measure S last November.

Oceanside has just received a letter threatening a lawsuit, and will take the matter up at the city council next month.

The sea change in the way representatives are elected is spreading beyond cities to school districts and beyond. Tri-City Hospital has a publicly elected board, but spokesman David Bennett said they have not received a letter from Kevin Shenkman. Not yet.

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