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The City of Encinitas will probably be switching to district elections for its council seats — not because it’s a good idea for democracy or to better represent the five communities that make up the city. The city instead finds itself having to buckle under threat of a lawsuit by the Malibu law firm of Shenkman & Hughes.

Described by opponents of district voting as a legal agitator who’s found a cash cow, attorney Kevin Shenkman files lawsuits against cities and special districts up and down the state. Under the guise of at-large elections diluting the power of Hispanic voters, he’s forced nine cities into legal settlements, including Oceanside, using provisions of the California Voter’s Rights Act, to switch to district elections.

With the City of Palmdale becoming the first municipality to challenge Shenkman in court, racking up a $4.7 million legal bill and losing its case, Encinitas has been advised to not challenge the threat.

In a public meeting held on September 20 in a packed chamber, the city’s project manager, Jim O’Grady, advised that on the city’s website a mapping feature provides residents an opportunity to suggest possible voting districts to the council. O’Grady also announced that on October 7 a district boundary workshop will be held for the public at Cardiff Elementary School, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The five communities that make up the city — Cardiff by the Sea, Leucadia, Olivenhain, and Old Encinitas (Coast Highway 101 corridor), and New Encinitas (El Camino Real corridor) — do not have equal populations as required for establishing districts. Encinitas’ districts will require approximately 15,000 residents each, based on the 2010 census.

Steven Winters of Olivenhain described himself as a “big nerd” because he had already found the city website’s mapping feature. He presented a map of four districts. His “Country to Coast Plan” would, for the most part, keep the recognizable communities intact with a little jig and jag here and there. Olivenhain and Cardiff would combine voters for their council seat. Winters was applauded by the council and the city’s legal consultant for his work.

“This Voters Rights Act does not put more Latinos on our council. We should fight it,” said resident Kevin Doyle. Since 1986 incorporation, two councilpersons were Hispanic, which represent 8 percent of past and current elected council. The city’s legal consultant, attorney Christopher Skinnell, stated that 9 percent of the city’s voters are identified as Hispanic.

Former mayor Teresa Barth, a Latina, has come out against district elections. As did former mayor Sheila Cameron at the meeting.

“We’re not Palmdale. This threat of a lawsuit is blackmail. The city should hire another attorney to fight the issue,” Cameron advised the council.

Earlier councilpersons Mark Muir and Tony Kranz suggested putting a hold on district election plans for now because a lawsuit has not been filed, only a demand letter has been received from Shenkman. The three other councilmembers turned down the motion.

“It’s with a heavy heart that I support the district process. This is bullying and no one likes to be bullied,” councilwoman Tasha Horvath told the crowd. “But I don’t think we can win [in court].” The council voted 5 to 0 to proceed with public input until late October when the proposed district’s boundaries will be finalized.

Every speaker spoke against holding district elections. The council has yet to decide if it will move forward after community input closes. All five councilpersons expressed their reluctance over council districts but said they are unfortunately inevitable.

During the meeting it was pointed out that Malibu, where Shenkman’s law firm is headquartered, holds its council elections at-large, not by district.

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