COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DICK DANIELS

Council districts will create municipal fiefdoms

Growing numbers of voters will have fewer local elected officials to complain to and about, thanks to a broad-swathed California law that is chopping cities and school districts into political fiefdoms.

It seems “at large” has become a political pejorative in the vocabulary of local elections these days as activists are busy seeking medium-size cities and school districts as candidate jurisdictions to impose provisions in the California Voting Rights Act.

Signed into law 11 years ago this summer, the law makes it relatively easy for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are diluted in at-large elections. The judicial remedy then is to carve up the target jurisdiction into smaller districts in which minority citizens who vote will have a greater say in who represents them.

However, many school districts, locally and elsewhere throughout the state, want to avoid costly litigation and have proactively established smaller Board of Education districts where the race or ethnicity of candidates will be as much a factor as experience or other suitability factors.

The CVRA expands on the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 but unlike its federal counterpart, the state law does not require a plaintiff who alleges disenfranchisement to demonstrate a specific geographic district where a minority is concentrated enough to become a majority. Once a minority area, always one, the logic goes. This makes it easier for minority voters to sue cities and other local jurisdictions to get rid of at-large elections.

Unlike most school districts, some jurisdictions haven’t rolled over without first trying to protect the right of voters to elect all their representatives, not just one who lives in their neighborhood.

In 2007, the California Supreme Court ruled the act as constitutional in a CVRA law suit against Modesto, a Central California city of 200,000. The city had contended the act was unconstitutional because it favors people of color. The state’s high court said otherwise and kicked the issue back down to the trial court. However, the case was settled at the polls after the city’s voters approved council districts in 2009.

Since then, the latest city to fall into the act’s gun sights is Escondido, where the mayor and each of the four council members have been responsible to all who reside within its boundaries for longer than anyone can remember.

In 2011, five Escondido residents, backed by a construction trade union, filed suit under the voting rights act, alleging the city’s at-large elections discriminate against Latinos, who make up nearly half the city’s 148,000 population.

Escondido seemed easy plunder for an issue such as this, given its role in recent years as the poster child for trying to find local solutions to the national problem of undocumented immigrants. At first, the council super majority returned fire, rightly predicting council districts would further divide and polarize the city.

People would be chosen more by race or ethnicity and council members would be focused only on their individual districts and not as much on the city as a whole. As a result, residents would only have political truck with one council member, not all four.

Some went so far as to suggest the city’s lack of elected leaders from the Latino community over the years is because Latino citizens aren’t politically active. They don’t vote in proportion to their numbers and are even less interested in running for office.

Only two Latinos have served on the City Council in anyone’s memory, including the council’s deputy mayor, Olga Diaz, who won easily in 2008 and 2012 and who’s become the most viable challenger-apparent to run against Mayor Sam Abed in next year’s election.

The council’s rhetoric soon hushed in order to find a remedy that would settle the case out of court. Losing the lawsuit after a lengthy and costly court battle not only would divide the city into council districts after all, but would also require the city to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees and its own. And so, 15 months after the suit was filed and $600,000 later in legal fees for both sides, the city and plaintiffs reached a settlement that is due to be reviewed for approval Friday by a Vista Superior Court judge.

Under terms of the deal, the city’s 36 square miles will be parceled into four council districts by a committee of seven local residents selected by three retired judges. The mayor remains the only at-large politico.

The council district configuration will begin to phase in next year when two seats open up, now occupied by long-time Councilmen Ed Gallo and John Masson, who was appointed in December to replace Marie Waldron when she won election to the Assembly.

Meanwhile, Escondido becomes only the second city in the county to implement council districts. Chula Vista and Oceanside, both with larger geographies and populations, have thus far escaped voter rights scrutiny, as have the county’s other 14 cities.

With an easy out-of-court victory that includes the city taxpayers shelling out $385,000 for the plaintiff’s legal fees, who’s next as a municipal target?

Stay tuned.

Daniels, principal consultant of Dick Daniels Public Relations, has been in public relations for 36 years and was an Escondido city councilman from 2006-10.

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