Temecula sets change in city council election method

The threat of costly litigation has prompted Temecula City Council members to shift from at-large elections to geographic districts.

By taking that action, Temecula joins an array of public agencies throughout the region and the state to change the way their leaders are elected. The change – slated to take effect in November 2018 – could affect future political campaigns and the way the city is governed.

“Absolutely, it will change things,” Ron Bradley, who served as Temecula’s city manager from 1994 to 1998 and ran unsuccessfully for the council in November, said. “It will change the way politics move forward in the future.”

The change, which received formal city council approval April 25, marks the second time in two years that a Temecula public agency has abandoned its longtime election method. The Temecula Valley Unified School District embarked upon its voting change early last year.

The school district was not targeted by an activist group or firm, and trustees said they were taking a pre-emptive move. Conversely, Temecula was targeted in March by a Malibu law firm that has issued a series of challenges in the region.

The March 22 letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman claims that at-large voting methods “cancel out the voting strength” of minority candidates.

The letter notes that two Latino candidates – Adam Ruiz and Angel Garcia – fell short of victory in November “due to the bloc voting of Temecula’s majority non-Latino electorate.” The letter also cites the limited success that past Latino candidates have had in reaching the dais.

“In fact, as a result of this racially-polarized voting, Temecula appears to have never had a Latino council member in its recent history,” Shenkman wrote.

Only one Latino, J. Sal Munoz, has been elected to Temecula’s council since the fast-growing community coalesced as a city in December 1989. Munoz was elected to the first council, but he did not serve multiple terms. Two black council members and three women council members have also served since Temecula became a city.

Shenkman’s four-page letter urged the city to voluntarily change its voting method, but it also warned “we will be forced to seek judicial relief” if that did not happen. The letter requested a city response by May 5.

The letter cites a 2012 case that Shenkman’s firm launched against Palmdale, litigation that cost that city millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to retain its at-large election system.

Shenkman has also targeted the cities of Vista, San Marcos, Oceanside and Carlsbad, as well as the Tri-City Health Care District, according to a recent story in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

That story noted Escondido became the first city in northern San Diego County to settle an election change lawsuit in 2013.

Since those early cases, numerous other cities, school districts and special districts have followed suit and made the voting change.

Many of those public agencies were targeted by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. MALDEF, which was founded in 1968, has been active in recent years in targeting jurisdictions that resisted an elections switch.

The genesis for the proposed change came in 2001, when the California Voting Rights Act expanded federal guidelines that were enacted three decades earlier. The California legislation made it easier for minority groups to prove that their votes were being diluted in at-large elections.

A scan of internet sites showed that southwest Riverside County cities are split in their election methods. Murrieta, Lake Elsinore and San Jacinto use the at-large method, while Menifee, Hemet and Wildomar are split into council districts.

Additional statutes took effect in January that helped cities with more than 100,000 residents make the change, Temecula City Clerk Randi Johl said in a staff report. Her report said “not a single jurisdiction has prevailed” in such election challenges, and many have had to pay millions in out-of-court settlements.

Temecula Unified trustees hired a consulting team to guide the district in its transition. The consultants were paid $18,000 to oversee the work during the yearlong process. The first Temecula Unified election to unfold under the new voting method occurred in November.

Temecula will be assisted by demographic and political boundary experts employed by its contract city attorney. The cost of that work will be covered by the city’s existing contract with its legal firm, Johl said.

Temecula’s population is approaching 110,000, but its boundary is overlapped by that of the school district. Shenkman said in his letter that nearly 25 percent of Temecula’s population is Latino.

That figure mirrors data that the school district relied on when it switched voting methods. About 56 percent of the district’s population is white, according to 2010 census data. Nearly 25 percent is Latino, followed by 10 percent Asian and 4 percent black. Nearly 4 percent of district residents say their families are a blend of two or more races.

Temecula will compile its own demographics data and prepare various election district boundary options as the process moves forward, Johl said.

Many candidates and voters favor electing local officials by geographic district because that method can result in lower campaign costs. That is because candidates can limit mailers and door-to-door visits to a smaller geographic area.

Conversely, critics argue that officials elected by geographic district can adopt a parochial attitude that favors their zone over other regions within their larger jurisdiction. Also, geographic districts prevent voters from casting ballots for or against candidates who live in other zones.

There was no visible support for the change among the council when it gave the green light at its April 25 meeting. No council members spoke for or against the change, or addressed Shenkman’s letter, before unanimously approving the switch.

Only audience member Skylar Temple commented during the hearing. Temple, a college student who was also defeated in the November council race, urged the council to approve the change. He said it would help Temecula because political issues can vary from one part of the city to another.

In a subsequent phone interview, Mayor Maryann Edwards said she does not expect to see any noticeable differences in the way the city is governed. She said the council primarily focuses on such citywide issues of public safety, park maintenance and road improvements.

“I don’t expect that to change,” Edwards, who has served on the council since 2005, said. She previously served as a Temecula school board trustee.

Bradley said in a phone interview that the change could bring a sharper focus to how the city funds maintenance or improvements in its geographic areas.

That could lead to jockeying as budgets are prepared and implemented, Bradley said, having seen both systems operate during his more than 45 years of public service. Besides Temecula, he has also worked as a city manager or interim manager for Murrieta, Menifee, Hemet, La Mesa and Oceanside.

Temecula is planning four public hearings on the proposed change. Johl said the demographics data and voting district options will be released before the third public hearing June 27. The fourth public hearing is slated for July 11.

The council is expected to adopt the new boundaries July 25. All of the hearings will be held in City Hall. Johl said she hopes residents will become involved in the process as it moves forward.

“It’s going to be important for the community to participate,” she said in an interview.

The city of Murrieta is also considering a move to by-district elections.

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