Lake Forest City Council Votes For Shift To By-District Elections

Last night the Lake Forest City Council voted 3-2 to change how it is elected, supporting a shift from the current at-large system to by-district elections beginning with the 2018 general election.

Under an at-large system, all candidates stand before all Lake Forest voters, with the top two or three (depending on the election cycle) winning election to the council. In a by-district system, candidates would live in a voting district and stand only before the voters of his or her district; the top vote-getter would ascend to the council.

Mayor Pro Tem Leah Basile and Councilmembers Dwight Robinson and Jim Gardner voted in favor of by-district elections. Mayor Scott Voigts abstained citing a need for further weighing the issues, and Councilman Andrew Hamilton opposed the move.

Last month, after the council had already agendized but then continued consideration of the move, the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes sent a letter to the city threatening litigation under the California Voting Rights Act unless it moved to by-district elections. Shenkman’s firms has made hundreds of thousands of dollars via actual and threatened CVRA, and Lake Forest will have to pay the firm’s fees for all work involved in preparing the litigation threat. Critics see this as a classic shakedown, with Shenkman’s firm threatening a lawsuit after the council signaled moving to by-district elections in order to score a quick settlement.

Due to a new state law governing cities with populations under 100,000, the council can bypass a city-wide vote and implement by-district elections directly.  The law requires cities to hold at least two hearings at which the public can provide input on district boundaries, plus at least two public hearings on draft voting district maps.  Capping it off is a city council meeting at which a map is chosen and district sequencing decided.

If the city council decides on a four-member council with a directly-elected mayor, each council district would have about 20,6oo people. If it chose a five-member council with a rotating mayorship, each district would contain about 16,500 residents. Those numbers denote residents, not voters. The law does not require each district to have the same number of voters – which critics of by-district elections consider a flaw. In Anaheim, for example, District 6 has twice as many voters as District 1, but the same representation on the council.

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