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KPBS Midday Edition

Vista To Consider Changing From Citywide To District Elections

Vista City Hall, 2014
Katie Schoolov
Vista City Hall, 2014
Vista To Consider Changing From Citywide To District Elections
Vista To Consider Changing From Citywide To District Elections GUEST: Alison St. John, North County reporter, KPBS

Our top story on KPBS Midday Edition many cities in San Diego County are in the process of moving from citywide to district elections. It's not necessarily because they want to. The voters act of 2001 mandate that cities whose large elections may be racially polarizing must have their city council members elected by district instead of by the whole city. Tonight vistas city Council is deciding if it should change to district elections after getting a letter from an attorney warning the city it could be in violation of the voting rights act. Joining me is North County reporter Allison St. John. Welcome. Glad to be with you Marine.'s breakfast is not the first city to get a letter warning that legal action could be taken. Who would be suing the city in such a case. In this case it is an attorney for Malibu, Kevin Shankman and he has set letters to various different cities but he's not the only one. You may remember that Escondido was threatened with a lawsuit in 2011 and that was actually a different attorney and the mayor at that point said no I would rather pay millions of dollars spent have my city divided. She found to fight it but they eventually decided that was foolhardy and went to district elections. In fact the last election was district elections that Escondido. Also Chula Vista last year went to district elections and San Marcos. Escondido was the first but it seems like there is a gradual increase in the number of cities that are receiving these letters and are making the decision to go to district elections. What kind of money is at stake in these cases? There are various cities that have spent millions. Modesto spent about 3 million in Palmdale spent 1.5 million. Some of that went to shake so it's a lucrative business for an attorney. There are other cities that have spent a lot of money. Escondido I believe pulled out and only spent less than 200,000 so they made a decision that this was not going to be good for their bottom line and found a way to go to district elections. Allison, remind us what is the rationale behind getting cities to district elections? Why should that strengthen the rights of minorities? The argument is that citywide the at-large elections dilute the minority about. There was an argument to be made that an larger cities there would be a very expensive campaign and something that would discourage perhaps a lower income candidate or a minority candidate from running or being able to reach the entire city. District elections would be a good deal less expensive and also may be able to appeal to sort of a more specific constituency and allow minorities to get their voices heard much more effectively. He spoke with the Vista Councilman and he was critical of district elections. What was his argument. That's interesting because John Aguilera is a Latino himself and grew up near the Latino neighborhood and he said he feels like for a city that is just under 100 -- 100,000 right now it may be more divisive than uniting it could be counterproductive. He gave an example of an issue where in fact the whole Council voted in favor by grams and resources for the lower income Latino neighborhoods and perhaps if there were district elections some of the representatives may say this will not benefit me and they may vote against it. Here is what he had to say. The idea of dividing up into districts only tends to polarize the city. I want to be able to represent shadow Ridge as well as North Vista and that's what I plan on I feel that all of my decisions have always been about Vista as a whole never about part of the community in the neighborhood. So there is a Vista Councilman John Aguilera talking about the problem that can arise from district elections. These changes do not guarantee that there will be greater minority representation on these city councils because that has not happened yet. That's right. Escondido -- you should bear in mind that about half the population is Latino and there is only one member on the Council in both of those cities right and who is Latino. The last election in Escondido remains the same. The incumbent the single income remained. It should be noted that it takes a while for communities to take advantage of opportunities and given time this will make a difference to the number of minorities that make it onto city councils. You need to develop the candidates of many to come out of their communities and find their feet and raise their money. And win the elections. The move toward district elections may be spreading beyond cities. You were talking about Tri-City board. There's quite a number of school boards that have received these letters and have decided to go to district wide elections. It is more than just school boards. Tri-City is a publicly owned hospital which has a publicly elected board and that has always been a bit of an issue because many people have no idea who these candidates are and the board has had a lot of problems in recent years other things are beginning to smooth out now. There's a question as to whether district elections might be more effective if the candidates were appealing to a smaller body of people they were able to get their message across more effectively. That has not yet happened. Tri-City has not received a letter. It is just something that the attorney has mentioned he is good about Once again the Vista city Council will be deciding if it should be changing to district elections tonight and I have been speaking with North County reporter Allison St. John. Thank you. Thank you Marine.

Vista To Consider Changing From Citywide To District Elections
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.

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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.”

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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.