Lake Elsinore City Council sees move to by-district elections as financial ‘extortion’

Despite feelings that a law firm’s claim that the city of Lake Elsinore has violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by conducting at-large elections is simply “extortion” and “false,” the Lake Elsinore City Council voted its intent to transition to by-district elections during a special meeting Tuesday, Nov. 7, at the city cultural center.

“This is disgusting and deplorable…There is extortion here,” Lake Elsinore City Councilwoman Natasha Johnson said during the meeting to discuss a certified letter to City Clerk Susan Domen by the law firm Shenkman & Hughes threatening to sue the city on the voting rights issue. “This is a litigious act of someone trying to make money off the back of taxpayers.”

She referenced a letter sent by the Malibu law firm dated Sept. 19 to the Lake Elsinore city clerk. A similar letter from the law firm has been sent to Lake Elsinore’s neighboring cities, which are in the process of changing their city council elections from at-large to by-district as a result for fear of costly litigation. Other California cities refusing to change to the at-large method of council voting to the by-district method have lost to Shenkman & Hughes, costing them millions of dollars.

The law firm has been successful in arguing that the at-large voting method has resulted in “vote dilution” or the “impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect their preferred candidates or influence the outcome of elections, which occurs when the electorate votes in a racially polarized manner.”

The law firm argued in their letter to Lake Elsinore, the city’s “at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a protected class) – to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Lake Elsinore’s council elections.” They claim the elections in the city in the past 17 years prove that argument since only two were elected in that time.

“For the first time, I feel that I have been insulted racially,” Councilman Steve Manos, a Latino himself, said of the letter from the law firm. “I don’t see a white voting bloc in this city.”

He said he and Johnson who is also of Latino descent are currently on the city council and other council members in the past have been of minority races. He said he believed the firm’s claim is “flat out false.” He said the city council has had a “long tradition of being tolerant in history” and had elected one of the regions first black mayors.

“This letter and action, or threat by Mr. Shenkman, is working to further divide us while the five members up here have worked very hard to further unite us,” Mayor Robert Magee said. “I believe in my colleagues up here will continue to work hard to represent all our constituents in Lake Elsinore, in spite of Mr. Shenkman’s action that is being forced upon us.”

Councilman Daryl Hickman was not available at the special meeting to make his comments.

Following the short discussion in the special meeting, the council voted 4-0, with Hickman not present, for its intent to transition to by-district elections.

“I am very offended,” Johnson said casting her vote. “But I will not spend taxpayer’s money to fight something we will not likely win.”

Manos voted for the resolution and said, “We do have financial gun pointed at our head,” in reference to the threatened lawsuit.

Magee said even though there might be some negative things come out of the voting change, the council will continue to work together for the betterment of the city.

The city attorney presented a timeline to change the at-large to by-district election process that will include four required public hearings, drawing of the proposed districts, approval of the district boundaries and using the new by district voting process and use of by-district voting in the November 2018 elections.

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