Temecula vote charts council election future

Shane Gibson photo
Shane Gibson photo

Prodded by a lawsuit threat and pinched by a tight deadline, the Temecula City Council finalized a shift from at-large elections to geographic districts. Council members winced over the city’s legal predicament and the state-mandated procedures before they set the boundaries of Temecula’s future council districts.

“We do want to be in compliance,” Mayor Maryann Edwards said during the change process that has unfolded over the past four months. “I think we have done the best that we can.”

The process began in March when a Malibu attorney warned in a letter that his firm might sue the city if Temecula did not change the way it has always conducted council elections. The process is expected to culminate July 25, which is when the council is slated to formally ratify its previous votes.

Future discussions are expected as the council seeks to craft policies aimed at preventing territorial differences as its members shift to voting districts.

The district boundaries that the council approved, July 11, capped a series of public hearings in which the change was discussed and debated. About 20 residents and other audience members spoke on the issue as the process unfolded.

The council voted 3-2 to approve the boundary configuration that demographic consultants identified as the yellow map. Councilmen Matt Rahn and James “Stew” Stewart dissented, as they preferred the slightly different orange map. There was no council support for the purple map option.

The July 11 hearing lasted nearly two hours as council members listened to public comments, discussed a range of issues pertaining to the change and picked a boundaries map. The boundaries will likely shift after the 2020 federal census and every 10 years after that time.

Several council members and audience speakers grumbled over being forced to make the change and to do it quickly. They lamented the city attorney’s advice that state mandates compelled them to swiftly adopt a map that split the city into five geographic districts.

“It is disconcerting,” Councilman Mike Naggar said at one point in the process. “I don’t necessarily think (the change) is a good thing for the city.”

Councilman Matt Rahn chafed at what he called an “unreasonable timeline” that has been imposed by the state when cities, school boards and special districts make such election changes.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re put into this position,” Rahn said.

By adopting the boundaries, Temecula joined an array of public agencies throughout the region and the state that have changed or are changing the way their leaders are elected. Temecula’s change – slated to take effect in November 2018 – could affect future political campaigns and the way the city is governed.

Edwards estimated that about 40 California cities have made such a change thus far or are in the process of doing so.

The genesis for the sea change came in 2001, which is 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.

The change, which received an initial green light from the council, April 25, marked the second time in two years that a Temecula public agency abandoned its 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 by a law firm that has issued a series of challenges in the region.

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

The letter cited 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.

The letter noted 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 cited the limited success that past Latino candidates have had in reaching Temecula’s dais.

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 blacks and three women have also served on the council 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. His letter requested a city response by May 5.

The city did not respond to Shenkman’s letter, Temecula city clerk Randi Johl said in a recent telephone interview. But the council’s swift action on the issue has given the city so-called “safe harbor” protection, she said.

Shenkman has also targeted numerous other cities and special districts throughout the state, according to a media reports.

Many public agencies have been 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.

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.

One of the speakers at Temecula’s public hearings, Patrice Lynes, countered that the city should ignore Shenkman’s warning because he is based in Malibu and has no legal standing in Temecula.

Lynes, who unsuccessfully ran for the Temecula council in the past, argued that “no racially polarized or diminished voting” has occurred in her city. Other speakers echoed that observation, and Garcia, who has twice campaigned for a council seat, lamented the voting change.

Garcia recommended that the council instead create four districts and allow voters to elect Temecula’s mayor. Since incorporation, Temecula council members have annually picked someone from their own ranks to fill the largely-ceremonial post.

Johl has said in a staff report that “not a single jurisdiction has prevailed” in such election challenges, and many have had to pay millions in out-of-court settlements.

Many candidates and voters favor electing local officials by geographic district because that method can result in lower campaign costs 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.

Some of the speakers at Temecula’s hearings pressed for the formation of an ad hoc committee to help map the city’s council districts.

State law sets certain criteria for the creation of such districts. Districts must be nearly equal in population, follow geographical or topographical features, be compact and contiguous and take into account such community characteristics as homeowner association boundaries.

The districts can be created so that none of the current council members may be forced to run against a colleague in an upcoming election.

Some council members said a boundaries committee is a good idea, but state guidelines placed the city under tight adoption constraints. They noted Temecula will have more time for study and discussion when it sets its future boundaries.

“The city was put into a very narrow box,” city attorney Peter M. Thorson told the council during his remarks.

Council members said it is likely that a committee of some sort will assist with the work to map the new districts after the 2020 census.

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