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By Allison Jarrell
At the Feb. 16 San Juan Capistrano City Council 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 discussion on Feb. 16—which took all of 20 minutes—was 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.
City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger said during the meeting that the council first discussed the potential lawsuit filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) and San Juan residents Tina Auclair and Louie Camacho on Jan. 5 during closed session. However, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes, said in an interview that there was no communication from the city after a mid-December letter was sent detailing the CVRA violation, leaving the plaintiffs little choice but to file a complaint.
Ballinger and City Manager Ben 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 establishment of districts within the city will shake up the current distribution of council members, with City Councilman Derek Reeve, Mayor Pam Patterson and Mayor Pro Tem Kerry Ferguson living within about a mile of each other west of Del Obispo and north of Camino del Avion.
While no one spoke against the switch to district elections during the meeting, Councilman John Perry noted that depending on the size of the districts, some council members could be elected with very few votes.
The City Council will consider hiring a demographer during its public meeting on Tuesday, March 1. After receiving only one proposal, Siegel and Ballinger are recommending 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.
Tuesday’s meeting begins at 5 p.m. and takes place at City Hall, located at 32400 Paseo Adelanto. To view the rest of the agenda, visit www.sanjuancapistrano.org.