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Possible switch to district elections in Murrieta, Temecula outrages some

May 10,2017 20:19

Murrieta and Temecula are moving forward with a switch from at-large to district elections — but not everyone is happy with the plan. “Why should we be forced to vote for a candidate we don't want?” asked Murrieta resident Faye Wons during a special ...

Murrieta and Temecula are moving forward with a switch from at-large to district elections — but not everyone is happy with the plan.
“Why should we be forced to vote for a candidate we don’t want?” asked Murrieta resident Faye Wons during a special meeting in Murrieta on Monday evening.
Other residents echoed similar concerns, saying districts would divide the cities and spur unproductive in-fighting among elected reps.
Leaders in the two cities, however, decided to move forward with the change, in part, due to demand letters from a law firm that has spurred other cities in the region — including Highland, Hemet, Redlands, Banning, Eastvale and Wildomar — to dump at-large elections.
That format, which had been the default setting for cities, allows voters to choose from a slate of candidates who are tasked with representing the entire city. District elections divide a city into quadrants and force voters to choose from candidates who live within their district.
Cities that don’t make the switch risk dealing with a lawsuit that has proven to be unwinnable due to language in the California Voting Rights Act, which strongly backs the creation of districts to boost representation by minority groups.
Cities that have attempted to defend at-large elections — Palmdale being the notable example — have been defeated in the courts and they have been required to pay millions in legal fees.
The sitting council members in both cities largely agreed with the critics of districts, but said their hands are tied.
Several, including Murrieta Mayor Rick Gibbs and Temecula Councilman James “Stew” Stewart, placed the blame on Sacramento.
“This is the state,” said Stewart.
On Tuesday, Temecula held the first of four scheduled public hearings in the process that will allow residents to weigh in on the idea of districts and, down the line, review proposed boundaries.
A day earlier, the Murrieta council voted 4-1 during the special meeting, with Councilman Jonathan Ingram dissenting, to start the process.
“I will not support this,” Ingram said, arguing that the state was stripping away local control. “I stand for unity.”
The first hearing will be held at a regular meeting to give more people the chance to attend.
Councilman Randon Lane, while expressing reservations about districts, said the city would be on the hook for both the opposition’s legal expenses and the city’s defense team if it loses the suit. And, in the unlikely event of a win, it would still be required to cover the cost of the city’s team due to the way state law is written.
The law’s intent is to boost participation by minorities in the election process. According to the U.S. Census, about 70 percent of residents in Temecula and Murrieta identify as “white alone.” About 25 percent identify as “Hispanic or Latino,” 10 percent as “Asian alone” and 4 to 5 percent as “Black or African-American.”
In last year’s council race in Murrieta, which was cited by the law firm that sent the city a demand letter, Harry Ramos, a former U.S. Marine of Puerto Rican descent, lost his re-election bid.
Multiple speakers on Monday said Ramos lost because he had been investigated by the city following allegations of improper conduct during his time as mayor, not due to his ethnicity.
“For them to be playing the racist card is ridiculous,” said Murrieta resident Evita Starbuck.
Ramos said last week he doesn’t support districts on principle but that he may run again in the future to represent the northern portion of the city, which has unique traffic issues due to its proximity to the Menifee border.

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