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City attorney: Fighting district elections in Poway would be futile

July 14,2017 18:25

The Poway City Council will be given two options Tuesday night regarding holding future city elections by districts: Get started right away or prepare to spend $1 million for a legal fight it won't win. In a 16-page report prepared for the meeting ...

The Poway City Council will be given two options Tuesday night regarding holding future city elections by districts: Get started right away or prepare to spend $1 million for a legal fight it won’t win.
In a 16-page report prepared for the meeting, City Attorney Morgan Foley laid out a step-by-step process the city can use to avoid being sued by a Malibu attorney for allegedly violating the California Voting Rights Act. The process involves hiring a consultant to prepare a map dividing the city into four voting districts and holding five public hearings between Aug. 1 and Sept. 19. The process will cost the city approximately $82,500 to complete, Foley estimates. The position of mayor would continue to be elected citywide.
As he has done to governmental agencies across the state, attorney Kevin Shenkman is threatening to sue the city, claiming that its system of electing the four city councilmembers “at-large” violates the law because it “dilutes the ability of Latinos (a protected class) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Poway’s elections.” His June 2 letter to the city notes that 15.7 percent of Poway’s population is Latino. “The contrast between the significant Latino population of the electorate and the complete historical absence of Latinos to be elected to the City Council is telling,” Shenkman wrote.
The Poway Unified School District has received a similar letter from Shenkman.
Twenty-seven cities, counties and school districts have so far unsuccessfully challenged Shenkman, Foley wrote in his report, resulting in the payment of $14.78 million to plaintiffs’ attorneys. The amount does not include the time and money spent by the governmental agencies in their challenges.
“If the City Council chooses to maintain its at-large elections and defend the threatened lawsuit the cost and attorneys’ fees would likely exceed $1,000,000,” Foley wrote.
After reviewing the letter in a June 20 closed session, the council asked staff to prepare a resolution of intention to create and implement by-district elections. That resolution will be on Tuesday night’s agenda. It includes a tentative timeline calling for public hearings on Aug. 1, Aug. 15, Sept. 5 and two hearings on Sept. 19. The first two hearings will solicit public comments on how the map should be drawn and how the by-district elections should be phased in. One or more draft maps would be the subject of the Sept. 5 and Sept. 19 meetings, with an adopting of a resolution selecting the final map also set for Sept. 19. Final adoption of a map would be on Oct. 3.
Foley wrote that the city has retained a districting consultant and demographer to evaluate the city’s position under the California Voting Rights Act. Douglas Johnson and his staff will draw the proposed districts after the first two public hearings and, together with any maps prepared by members of the public, present all qualifying maps to the council. The consultant will charge approximately $42,000 for the work. Special legal counsel fees are expected to add another $40,000 to the cost, Foley estimated.
A potential challenge to those drawing the maps is that three of the four current councilmembers - John Mullin, Jim Cunningham and Barry Leonard - live fairly close to each other, in North Poway. Mullin, Councilman Dave Grosch and Mayor Steve Vaus are up for re-election in November 2018.
Other council agenda items include an update on the undergrounding of utility lines along a portion of Espola Road and the likely setting of Nov. 7 as the date for a special election regarding allowing condominiums to be built at the StoneRidge Country Club.
Tuesday’s meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the council chambers, 13325 Civic Center Drive. Agenda materials are available at poway.org.

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