ESCONDIDO — A major change in how Escondido residents elect their city leaders in 2014 may reverberate statewide as local governing boards increasingly face legal challenges to how their members are elected.
An independent commission has just completed work on a map that breaks up Escondido into districts and will allow voters to elect their council members based on where they live in the city instead of through an at-large system, in which residents vote citywide for the same candidates.
Proponents of the new districts in Escondido say they will improve minority representation on the City Council and encourage civic engagement, but opponents argue the boundaries will divide the city and create infighting. The debate is playing out statewide as cities, school districts and community college boards face lawsuits stemming from the California Voting Rights Act enacted in 2002.
At the state Capitol, Assemblyman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, is planning legislation that would require City Council members be elected by district for all non-charter cities with more than 100,000 residents. An aide said the measure would affect 27 cities statewide.
“There are a lot of open questions,” said Christopher Skinnell, a San Rafael attorney who specializes in law and civil litigation related to elections and voting rights. “An increasing number of cities and school districts are paying attention.”
In Escondido, the change came about as part of a settlement in a lawsuit by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which alleged that Escondido’s at-large system was discriminatory against Latinos and violated California law.
The state law bars at-large elections if the system weakens the power of minorities to elect candidates of their choice. Boards that lose a legal challenge to their at-large voting system must pay the plaintiff’s legal fees.
Compton, Tulare and Palmdale are just a few of the cities that have faced lawsuits in recent years. Others, including many community college districts and school boards, are changing their election systems to avoid lawsuits, said Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners, a Sacramento consultant who works with local governments to interpret the law and draw voting district lines.
“Out there somewhere is potentially a plaintiff who is getting research done on whether you have polarized voting and how districts would affect you,” Mitchell said.
Escondido was vulnerable to a lawsuit because of its dense Latino population in the urban core, lack of Latinos elected to the council and racially polarized voting, Mitchell said.
According to the 2010 census, about 49 percent of Escondido’s nearly 144,000 residents were Latino. That’s a jump of 10 percent from 2000, when about 39 percent of the city’s 133,559 residents identified as Hispanic or Latino.
The new districts include one where Latinos are a majority of eligible voters, right in the city’s center.
“This is a good thing because it’s going to be more inclusive,” said John E. Valdez, vice chairman of the independent districting commission selected by a three-judge panel to draw up the district map. “We need to have political leaders that represent our community.”
Valdez, a professor of Chicano studies at Palomar College, said the new districts will help heal a rift with many Latinos who did not feel heard in Escondido.
“We are more empowered to shape the future,” said Valdez, who has lived in Escondido for 40 years.
The City Council unanimously approved the district boundaries in early December, though several members said at the meeting they disagreed with district elections in Escondido.
“I believe strongly that these districts will be a major setback for the Hispanic community in Escondido. It will isolate them politically, geographically, culturally, financially and economically,” said Mayor Sam Abed, whose position will still be elected on an at-large basis. “Decisions will be made based on the best interests of the districts. We are too small of a community to be divided.”
Olga Diaz, the city’s deputy mayor, became the first Latina on Escondido’s City Council when she was elected in 2008. She is the only woman on a five-member council. She supported the switch to district elections.
“I’m excited to see what this does to engage additional community members in potentially running for office,” Diaz said at the meeting. “Some day I would like to know that we’ve got new people in the mix and interested.”
Shifting demographics and increasing diversity in cities, where people of color and women may not have been represented in government decision-making, are more likely to drive transitions to district elections, said James Brooks, program director for the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C.
A representative with a specific district or ward can focus on the needs of those constituents, he said.
“You want to create opportunities for access and representation,” Brooks said.
But the debate can become hazy, especially when it centers on how a person identifies racially and ethnically, not easy questions in a melting pot.
For instance, in Escondido, there have been two other council members of Latino descent, but voters did not necessarily know.
“We’ve seen this all across the state,” said Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s the California law that has thrust the ethnicities of the elected officials into the spotlight.”
Johnson said the California law is “vague” and encourages costly litigation that is driven by political motivations rather than civil rights goals. He added that in some jurisdictions, Latinos could make up 75 percent of the electorate in 10 years and district elections could limit their power geographically compared with at-large voting.
Abed, Escondido’s mayor, agrees that districts will hinder Latinos and prove divisive. He said politics, not unfair representation, spurred the lawsuit.
“My success as an immigrant here is assimilation,” Abed said. “If we want immigrants to realize the American dream, we should grow as one community, assimilate and work together as a united community.”
In Escondido, the job of revising districts belonged to the independent districting commission, seven appointed voters who applied to serve. The commissioners had to comply with several criteria, including that they had not been involved in certain political behaviors in the last decade such as being paid employees of any California political candidate or party. Additionally, commissioners must agree not to run for Escondido City Council for five years after their service.
The process was overwhelming, particularly at first, but keeping their purpose foremost helped, said Dana Nuesca, the commission’s chairwoman. Work included nine public hearings, three line-drawing meetings and three drafts.
Among the commission’s charges was to ignore politics and where incumbents and candidates lived, Nuesca said.
“As I reminded the commission, we’re not here to solve the city’s problems,” Nuesca said. “We’re here to draw up districts.”
Nuesca, who runs a nonprofit that helps exploited children and has lived in the city for four years, said she learned about many communities of interest in the city, including its mobile home parks. The commission changed its map at one point when residents told them the proposed district sliced through the park.
Pat Mues, a longtime resident who writes a blog about Escondido city government, was among about 10 residents who regularly attended the meetings about the new districts. She believes the at-large system favored incumbents and supports the new map, which takes effect next year when the mayor and two council seats are up.
“I hope that this will enliven people of Escondido to get registered, get voting and get active,” Mues said.
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.