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Like Dominos, North San Diego County Cities Are Moving To District Elections

Oceanside City Hall, March 2017.

Photo by Promise Yee

Above: Oceanside City Hall, March 2017.

By the time the 2018 elections roll around, there’s a good chance more than half the cities in San Diego County will be voting for their city council representatives by district, not by citywide vote.


By the time the 2018 elections roll around, there’s a good chance more than half the cities in San Diego County will be voting for their city council representatives by district, not by citywide vote.

The city of San Diego, with a population of 1.3 million people, has elected its city council members by district since 1988.

But until 2012, all other residents in the county voted for their city council members at large: in other words, candidates had to campaign citywide to win a seat. Then Chula Vista and El Cajon voted to adopt city council districts.

Now, in a domino effect, one North County city after another is being forced to change from at-large to district elections. Five North County cities have decided in the last five years (three in the last month) to switch from citywide to district elections — and not because they wanted to.

Photo credit: KOCT

Oceanside City Council, May 3, 2017


At a recent Oceanside City Council meeting, about 40 people spoke on the issue of moving to district elections. Most of them, like one long-time Oceanside resident who identified herself only as Lori, were opposed to the idea of dividing the city into council districts.

“I am completely against districts," she told the council. “I don’t want one city council representing me, I want the entire council representing me. All of you should represent all of us.”

But at the end of the night, the Oceanside council voted three to two to make the change to district elections.

Councilman Jerry Kern cited a letter the city had received, threatening a lawsuit if it didn’t make the change to district elections within 90 days.

“I don’t see a win in it for us,” he said. “I understand what you guys want, but the bottom line is I have to protect the assets of the city, so I’m going to support this, even though I don’t want to.”

=Other California cities have tried to fight the change but they have all lost in court. Modesto and Palmdale have each spent more than $3 million of public money in fines and legal fees after losing the legal battle.

The attorney who won those suits and sent the letter to Oceanside is Kevin Shenkman, acting on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, a Latino voting rights organization. Shenkman said he is simply enforcing the California Voting Rights Act on behalf of disenfranchised minorities, whose vote is diluted by citywide elections.

“City councils end up only needing to cater to their base,” Shenkman said, “and that often results in the minority communities not getting their share of services, and not having anyone on city council that they can go to with their problems.”

Photo by Beverley Woodworth

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, May 8, 2016


Escondido was the first North County city to be threatened with legal action if it did not change to district elections. That was in 2012. Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, a Republican, is still angry. He said he himself is a minority and the city already had Olga Diaz, a Latina, on the council.

“So what’s wrong with Escondido? Nothing.” Abed said. “It’s just nothing but a political game: the politicians are using the districts to make sure they give the minorities an advantage over the regular residents. There is no need to create the districts.”

Abed said city districts are divided up by population size, not taking into account whether that population is documented or registered to vote. That gives people living in areas with many undocumented residents a more powerful vote, he said.

Abed said districts may work for bigger cities but for cities like Escondido with 150,000 residents, it will lead to turf wars.

“It becomes a neighborhood approach, it becomes a tribal approach," he said. “I don’t like it."

So far district elections have not changed the make-up of the Escondido City Council: the incumbents kept their seats in 2016.

Photo by Beverley Woodworth

Oceanside city councilwoman Esther Sanchez, May 8, 2017

A neighborhood approach

Oceanside City Councilwoman Esther Sanchez, who supports the change, said she thinks voting by district will eventually make a difference, because more people will be able to afford to run.

“We’ll have real elections,” she said, “not where the incumbent can raise $100,000 or $150,000 for a council seat that only pays $27,000 a year. So I think bringing it down closer to the neighborhood level, we’ll have a better election, a better class of candidates that will be truly responsive to the community.“

Sanchez is not so happy about the speed with which Oceanside will have to decide on council district boundaries. Under the legal threat, the city has just 90 days to do that before it risks being sued.

The criteria for drawing the district lines cannot be predominantly racial, but should be based on “communities of interest.”

Karin MacDonald with Q2 Data and Research, a consultant to the city, explained to those at the council meeting that citizens can choose the boundary lines based on who shares their interests: whether it is development, open space, transit or schools.

“So basically it’s up to you to let us know what it is that you organize around and basically what you would need representation on,” she said. ”So how do you document a community of interest? What bounds your community?”

Oceanside's Kern urged residents to get involved in nine upcoming community meetings.

“Don’t walk away tonight and leave it here,” he said. “You have that schedule. Be engaged, stay engaged and see what we can do to control this.”

A statewide trend

The burden of proof to show a violation of the California Voting Rights Act is lower than for the federal Voting Rights Act, and attorneys only have to show evidence of “racially polarized voting” to win their case. In the last two years a flood of California cities have been threatened with legal action and have moved to district elections.

Shenkman said regardless of the size of the city, district elections can result in a significant shift. For example, he said, San Juan Capistrano, with a population of just 30,000, held its first district election in 2016 and elected its first Latino representative.

In San Diego’s North County, San Marcos moved to district elections last year and Vista voted to make the change last month, after receiving a letter from Shenkman.

The latest city to receive a letter is Carlsbad. Unlike Oceanside, the city has a council that has voted in unison for decades. But this issue divided the council. Like Oceanside, the Carlsbad council voted 3 to 2 to make the change.

Attorney Shenkman said other small coastal cities can expect to get a letter soon.

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