UPDATED: Lake Forest City Council To Consider Switching To By-District Council Elections

UPDATED at end of story.

Tonight, the Lake Forest City Council will discuss the possibility of switching to by-district council elections. The five-member council is currently elected at-large – meaning every citizen has the opportunity to vote on everyone running for council. Under a by-district election system, a municipality is divided into voting districts, in which the voters may only choose from candidates running in their district.

Nearly every Orange County city that has switched to by-district elections did so due to actual or threatened California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) litigation. The CVRA is a Democratic legislation passed 15 years ago with the goal of forcing cities and school districts to elect their councils and school boards from district drawn along ethnic and racial lines. Only San Clemente is moving toward by-district elections as the result of a grass-roots citizens petition drive.

Filing CVRA lawsuits had become a lucrative cottage industry for a number of attorneys, including Robert Rubin, who authored CVRA. However,

Lake Forest, a city of about 82,000, is little danger of CVRA litigation. One reason is a new law passed last year which limits attorneys bringing CVRA lawsuits to collecting no more than $30,000 in fees from the cities and school districts they sue (provided certain conditions are met). Attorneys representing now-Councilman Jose F. Moreno in his CVRA lawsuit against Anaheim collected more than $1.2 million in fees from Anaheim taxpayers.

Given the city’s ethnic demography – 70.3% white, 24.6% Latino, 13.1% Asian – and the new cap on attorneys fees, Lake Forest doesn’t fit the target profile for a successful CVRA lawsuit.

By-districts elections are on tonight’s agenda due to a request made by Councilman Jim Gardner at the March 7 city council meeting. Other recent changes in state law allow cities with populations under 100,000 to transition directly to by-district elections by a council vote alone – bypassing putting the question to the voters. That is simply an option – a city council could still opt for putting the question to the voters.

At the same time, the city would have to decide whether or not to increase the size of the city council, and whether to the mayor should remain a council-appointed or directly-elected office.

If and when the entire plan were approved by the council, the voters or both, the next step would be setting district boundaries and deciding which districts would be on the presidential or off-year election ballots.

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.

Leaving aside the racial/ethnic identity politics that have largely driven switches to by-district elections, proponents believe voting districts make city government more responsive and elections more competitive by reducing the number of voters with whim candidates must communicate. If Lake Forest shifted to five single-member council districts, each district would contain about 16,000 people – enabling a candidate to win election with perhaps 4,000 votes.

Opponents maintain that it effectively disenfranchised most city voters, since they’ll be governed by the entire city council but only have a one councilmember accountable to them at election time. Furthermore, by-district elections – unless they incorporate a top-two run-off provision as in supervisor races – result in city councils composed of councilmembers who have been elected by a small fraction of city voters, and who tend to govern in the interest of their section rather than the city as a whole.

It’s unclear is there is majority support on the Lake Forest City Council for such a shift.

UPDATE: the by-district elections items was continued until the May 2 city council meeting, at the request of city staff.

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