The Costa Mesa City Council voted to place before the voters this November a proposal to expand the city council to six members elected from voting districts, and a mayor elected at-large and serving two-year terms. Voters will also be asked to approved a reject a specific council districts map from which the councilmembers would be elected beginning in 2018.
Councilmembers would continue to be limited to serving two consecutive four-year terms. The new directly-elected mayor would be limited to serving two consecutive two-year terms. In both cases, a councilmember’s eligibility to serve would “re-set” after he or she sat out at least one election cycle.
The past December Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman threatened to file a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city unless it agreed to replace its at-large method of electing the city council with by-district elections. The city settled with Shenkman in order to avoid an expensive lawsuit it would likely lose. Since Costa Mesa is a general law city, the shift to by-district elections and a specific map must be put to the voters for approval of rejection.
If the voters reject the plan, Shenkman will go back to court to have a judge draw the council district map and impose it on the voters.
The lawsuit threat by Shenkman – who has built a thriving business out of filing CVRA lawsuits against cities – has produced a somewhat surreal electoral situation. Most members of the city council prefer the at-large election system, yet the settlement agreement forces the council to support adoption of the council districts plan, and prohibits councilmembers from opposing it in an official capacity.
There was no grass-roots demand for enlarging the city council or shifting to by-district council elections, yet Costa Mesa citizens will be asked to approve an electoral re-structuring they did not seek under the threat that if they reject it, it will be imposed on them anyway by judicial fiat.
Mr. Shenkman is re-engineering Costa Mesa city governance through the barrel of a litigation gun, and it’s difficult to see how it advancing representative government.