City Council reluctantly approves switch to district voting

This map of voting districts was approved Tuesday by the Murrieta City Council. Expressing opposition to the idea but concerned about...

This map of voting districts was approved Tuesday by the Murrieta City Council.

Expressing opposition to the idea but concerned about the loss of a costly lawsuit, members of the Murrieta City Council Tuesday night voted 3-1 to adopt an ordinance establishing a system of voting by districts.

In the fourth and final public hearing required in order for the City to maintain "safe harbor" protection from threatened litigation, council members faced an Aug. 6 deadline to either switch to voting by district or prepare to fight a lawsuit threatened by attorney Kevin Shenkman. The City of Murrieta recently received a letter from Shenkman, threatening to sue based on the claim that an at-large voting system is discriminatory against minorities who run for election.

Shenkman has already prevailed in lawsuits against other California cities, using the California Voting Rights Act in his argument. Other cities have voted to move to district voting for fear of losing millions in a similar lawsuit.

Echoing the sentiments expressed in the three previous public hearings, council members criticized the state law but said they felt they had no choice but to make the change and avoid legal costs the city can't afford. They vowed to pursue ways to force a change in the law, which in essence makes it easier for minority groups to sue, claiming their votes are diluted in at-large elections.

"We have some avenues we can go down to fight what the state has done," said Kelly Seyarto, who made the motion that was passed by a 3-1 margin. "This vote does not mean we cannot pursue other steps to fix this law."

Council member Randon Lane was absent following surgery this week. The only dissenting vote was cast by Jonathan Ingram, who has been vehemently opposed to the switch from the beginning.

"This is doing the exact opposite of what I want to see happen in my city," Ingram said. "I'll never agree with this. I'll go kicking and screaming about this until the day I die."

Ultimately, council members voted to adopt one of three maps presented by demographics expert Douglas Johnson that divides the city into five districts. While telling the council that it was virtually impossible to create any one district composed primarily of minority residents, he did create the "yellow map", which council members considered the most balanced of the three presented.

The district system will replace the current system, in which all residents were allowed to vote for five candidates from throughout the city. The approved district map, which is posted on the city's website, was designed to provide as balanced a split as possible while conforming to the residential areas and election cycles of current council members.

The yellow map, shown above, divides the city into five voting districts for city elections:

District 1: This district covers a north central part of the city west of the 215 Freeway. Its next election year will be 2018. That is the year Jonathan Ingram, who resides in that district, is up for re-election.

District 2: This district covers the northern part of the city that is east of the 215 Freeway. Its next election year will be 2018. That is the year Alan Long's term is up.

District 3: Covering the entire length of the western border of the city, this district will next have a council election in 2020. Both Rick Gibbs and Randon Lane reside in that district. Gibbs told Murrieta 24/7 he does not plan to run for re-election, and Lane would not be eligible to run that year because of term limits.

District 4: The lower central portion of the city will have its next election in 2020. That's when Kelly Seyarto would be up for re-election.

District 5: The smaller but highly populated southeast corner of the city has no current council member residing in it, so its election year will be 2018 -- the next time there will be a change in council seats.

"I don't agree with the district system," Long said. "Nevertheless, we have to vote on this. We have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that this would do the exact opposite of what the lawsuit would claim it will fix. The law is written in a way that very little proof is needed for the lawsuit to be successful.

"If we don't take this action tonight, we'll be on the hook for millions of dollars. I don't like this, but I'm not going to put our city in financial jeopardy. I'm going on record saying I'm doing this with reservations."


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