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By Allison Jarrell

On March 1, the San Juan Capistrano City Council took another step toward holding district elections for council seats by directing the city manager to continue the search for a demographer to work on dividing the city into voting districts.

After receiving only one proposal out of six firms that were contacted, City Manager Ben Siegel and City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger recommended the city hire Doug Johnson of the National Demographics Corporation at a cost of no more than $22,000 from the city’s General Fund.

With a unanimous vote, the council decided to direct the city manager’s office to expand the search and call for more proposals before selecting a firm for the job.

At their Feb. 16 ‪ meeting, council members unanimously approved transitioning from at-large to district elections before the upcoming Nov. 8 election. Along with approving the switch, the council directed staff to bring back a district-mapping process that would include at least three community forums to gather input and authorized the city manager to hire a demographer. Community input and the demography work would be used to determine whether to create five districts or four with an elected mayor.

The council’s recent actions have been prompted by a voting rights lawsuit filed against the city on Jan. 27, which claims the city’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 and result in “vote dilution for the Latino residents” by denying them “effective political participation in elections.” Latinos account for about 39 percent of San Juan’s population, and according to city staff, no Latino representatives have been elected to the City Council for at least the last five election cycles.

Ballinger and Siegel advised the council to initiate the switch to district elections—as many other cities that have been similarly sued have done—in order to avoid costly litigation.

The council’s vote on March 1 authorized Siegel to award a contract to a demographer, in an amount not to exceed $45,000, after more proposals have been received and reviewed.

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