Council consideration of voting districts gets more specific

Douglas Johnson, demographics consultant, and Christina Cameron, assistant city attorney, listen to questions from council members during ...

Douglas Johnson, demographics consultant, and Christina Cameron, assistant city attorney, listen to questions from council members during Tuesday night's Murrieta City Council meeting.
Murrieta 24/7 photo: Doug Spoon

The third of four required public hearings about the possibility of switching from an at-large voting system to district-based voting in the City of Murrieta became even more focused Tuesday night, with a demographics expert presenting two potential district maps and discussion of the possible application of state law in this case intensifying.

Repeating their stance of the two previous public hearings, all five council members expressed anger and frustration that the threat of litigation by an outside party could force them to adopt a district voting system, in which residents would vote only for one council member from among candidates who live in their geographical area. In a letter similar to one he has sent to several cities in California, attorney Kevin Shenkman has threatened a lawsuit against the City, claiming at-large voting (in which residents can vote for every open council seat) is discriminatory against minorities who run for election.

Yet despite their frustration, some council members said they believe the real problem is with the California Voting Rights Act -- legislation they fear they might not be able to fight at the local level. Some cities already have lost lawsuits after trying to resist a switch to district voting. And as assistant city attorney Christina Cameron reported during Tuesday night's meeting, Huntington Beach appears to be the only city currently attempting to fight against Shenkman's threat.

"The real fight is in challenging the law," said council member Kelly Seyarto (left). "We aren't the people with the wherewithal to make that challenge. Whether we're forced into districts or not, it doesn't define who we are politically. If I'm elected to represent a district, the day after the election, I'm still looking out for the city."

Mayor Rick Gibbs expressed a similar point of view.

"Everything the state is trying to do is take away local control," Gibbs said. "Reluctantly, my opinion is that we're not going to spend millions of dollars fighting this. It doesn't matter if we're for or against it. The California Voting Rights Act took away some rights of the citizens."

In essence, the CVRA makes it easier for minority groups to sue, claiming their votes are diluted in at-large elections. Yet a demographics study presented by Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation, showed there is no geographical area in Murrieta that is predominantly of one race.

Addressing this issue, council member Alan Long (right)  said he believed that application of the CVRA in Murrieta's case would do the opposite of what the legislation is intended to do.

"The study shows that 26 percent of the population of Murrieta is Latino," said Long, whose mother and wife are Hispanic. "You've shown that you can't create a district that is primarily Latino because that population is scattered. I would say the likelihood of Latinos electing a Latino in a district election is far less than them electing one Latino out of five candidates they can vote for in an at-large election.

"I'm half Hispanic, and the more I learn about this law, the more outraged I become. For a city that could be a role model because of its diversity to be forced into this is offensive, it's racial, and it does the opposite of what is intended. It assumes Latinos will vote based primarily on race and not the issues. How offensive is that?"

Even so, the council listened to Johnson's presentation of two district scenarios. Presenting a Green Map and Yellow Map that have been displayed on the city website for the last week, he described what he believes are two viable options for dividing the city into five districts of fairly equal numbers.

The Green Map (shown below) creates a District 1 in the northern part of the city that is split by the 215 Freeway; District 2 primarily in the triangle between the 215 and 15 Freeways; District 3 on the west side of the city; District 4 at the south end of the city; and District 5 to the east, primarily in the French Valley area. In that configuration, current City Council member Jonathan Ingram would represent District 1, Seyarto would represent District 2 and Long would represent District 5. District 4 would not have a current representative and District 3 would have two council members in that area -- Gibbs and Randon Lane.

Clarifications would have to made on how all five districts would be represented and whether a council member's term limit, when expired in one district, could be renewed if he or she moved to another district.

The Yellow Map (also below) adjusts Districts 1 and 2 to both be in the north part of the city, split by the 215 Freeway. District 3 would run the entire western length of the city, District 4 would be the central portion, and District 5 would be reduced to a smaller geographic area in the southeast part of Murrieta. In that configuration, Ingram would remain in District 1, Long would be placed in District 2, Gibbs and Lane would remain in District 3, Seyarto would be placed in District 4, and District 5 would be vacant.

The fourth and final public hearing on this matter will be held at the July 18 council meeting, when a decision would have to be made. The city's 90-day "safe harbor" protection from litigation ends Aug. 6.

Residents wishing to view the maps more closely, submit input on the matter and view more information may do so at this link.




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