By Richard Riehl
Before casting his vote against district elections, Carlsbad city Councilman Mark Packard called the California Voting Rights Act a “bad law.” He explained with furrowed brow, “The closest analogy that has come to my mind is the Stamp Act. It disenfranchised the colonists at that time. I believe that this law disenfranchises the citizens of Carlsbad.”
The councilman’s history lesson didn’t include the fact that colonists wouldn’t have been allowed to vote on the Stamp Act unless they were free, male, landowners and members of the predominant religious group. Had England passed a Colonial Voting Rights Act, I think those disenfranchised colonists would have called it a good law.
Packard claimed to have voted his conscience, admitting it was a losing cause that would subject the city to up to $5 million in legal fees and allow the court to mandate the composition of voting districts rather than permit city residents to weigh in on it. His conscience appeared to be responsibility-free.
Nearly all discussion of district elections at the May 9 Council meeting was negative. The resolution to adopt them passed on a 3-2 vote, but there was unanimous agreement Sacramento had left them no choice.
After Councilmembers Cori Schumacher, Michael Schumacher (no relation) and Keith Blackburn held their noses and did the responsible thing, it was easy for Mayor Matt Hall to do the political thing. Having already filed with the city his Matt Hall for Mayor 2018 Campaign Committee, he chimed in with a smile, “I agree with Packard.”
It comes as no surprise that Packard and Hall, with a combined total of 34 years on the Council, have the greatest stake in business as usual at the polls.
City leaders should not have been taken by surprise by the threatened lawsuit. The California Voting Rights Act, paving the way for mandated district elections, was signed into law in 2002. It survived court challenges before 45 California cities succumbed to charges of violations, including North County’s San Marcos, Vista, and Oceanside.
Carlsbad’s website quotes a letter from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, contending that the City of Carlsbad’s at-large voting system “dilutes the ability of Latinos, (‘a protected class’), to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Carlsbad’s council elections.” The letter cites three instances where Latino candidates ran unsuccessfully for City Council yet received “significant support” from Latino voters.
There were ten public speakers that night. Leading the opposition was Melanie Burkholder, a 2016 Council candidate, who announced her withdrawal from the race on September 28 in a Coast News article, explaining she wanted, “to support other Republican candidates” for the nonpartisan office. Despite her announcement more than a month before election day, her name remained on the ballot, gathering 5,222 votes that could have gone to bona fide candidates.
Burkholder complained she would be constrained to vote for a single person to represent her estimate of 25,000 persons in her district. “What if there is not one of them who has a servant’s heart, or is passionate about public service? Are we really going to get the best of the best if they’re coming from that pool?” She went on to claim, “It’s further divisive to our city and a movement to create an entirely Democratic California.”
The other four speakers opposing district elections asserted their voting rights would be “diluted by 75 percent, since they would only be allowed to vote for one council member every four years.
Two pointed out the attorney threatening the lawsuit lives in Malibu, which continue to have at-large elections. They claimed Carlsbad and Malibu have similar demographics. But 2010 census figures reveal Carlsbad’s population is about ten times the size of Malibu’s 12,000. Only 6 percent of Malibu residents are Latino, while SANDAG’s 2016 estimate for Carlsbad is 20 percent.
In 2010 Malibu’s median household income was $115,000. Carlsbad’s was $85,000. District elections make little sense in small, wealthy, nearly mono-ethnic towns.
One speaker called the California Voting Rights Act “socialism.” Another declared, “Sacramento, you are my enemy!”
One of the few speaking in favor of district elections, Carlsbad Barrio resident Patricia Amador, expressed her hope for the day a Latina is elected to the council. She asked that wide public participation be sought in drawing district lines.
The only speaker to address the specific advantages of district elections was Linda Breen. She called the cost of citywide campaigning for at-large seats prohibitive for many.
The facts support her claim. Mayor Hall raised $79,000 to support his 2014 campaign, while running unopposed. Councilman Keith Blackburn raised $50,000 for his 2016 campaign, but he began with a $116,000 cash balance from his 2012 campaign.
I spoke with a potential 2018 mayoral candidate who told me, according to a local consultant, a successful candidate will need a campaign war chest of at least $100,000.
While the primary purpose of the California Voting Rights Act is to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in city government, there are advantages of district elections for all voters. They went unmentioned at the May 9 meeting.
For starters, district elections create a closer connection between council members and their constituents. Each council member must answer to a majority of voters in his or her district, unlike in at-large elections, when each is likely to represent only a plurality of voters.
District voters will get to know candidates campaigning in their own neighborhoods about issues affecting where they live, rather than relying largely on the quality and quantity of road and yard signs, hoping a city-wide winning candidate will care about their neighborhood.
None of the four current council members received more than half the vote in their latest elections, yet each is expected to represent the interests of the majority of city voters. Mayor Hall ran unopposed in the 2014 election but still got only 55 percent of the vote in his 2014 election victory.
Carlsbad’s at-large elections are partly to blame for the divisive results of a unanimous Council decision to build a shopping mall on the shore of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, with the mayor and council members eagerly posing as poster children for the billionaire L.A. developer’s project. Their decision was overturned in a costly special election with record voter turnout.
District elections can be more responsive to citizen preferences in land-use decisions.
According to the city’s website, over the next three months at least four public hearings will be held to seek advice on the composition of the districts, as well as provide feedback on a proposed map. The first two are scheduled for May 30 and June 13 at 6 p.m. at 1200 Carlsbad Village Drive.
The city has hired Douglas Johnson, President and Founder of the National Demographics Corporation, to draft district maps that comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act and the California Voting Rights Act.
Later in the May 9 meeting, Councilmember Cori Schumacher called for a discussion of how to improve the process for appointments to city commissions to increase transparency to the public. After a very long silence from other council members, Mayor Hall spoke.
“I don’t quite understand. We’ve done this same process for almost 40 years, and it seems like it’s worked out all right up to this point. Help me understand what we need to fix.”
The mayor’s cluelessness, followed by his explanation of how he picks candidates for city commissions, illustrate how cronyism has infected Carlsbad politics and how district elections may lead to a cure.
More about that next time.
Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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