Costa Mesa voters will be asked to decide whether to change the way city leaders are elected in the future, after accusations that the current system is biased against Latino residents.
Looking to avoid a threatened voting-rights lawsuit, the council voted 4 to 0 this week to put the question to voters in November on whether the city should switch to district-based elections.
In a district-based system, the city would be divided into voting areas, with each area electing a council member to represent it. Currently, the five Costa Mesa council members are elected by voters citywide in an at-large system.
The council's action came after Kevin Shenkman, an attorney with Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes, threatened to sue the city, alleging that the use of at-large voting violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by diluting the power of the city's Latino residents to "elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Costa Mesa's council elections."
No Latino candidate has ever been elected to the Costa Mesa City Council, Shenkman said, even though Latinos make up more than one-third of the city's population. Shenkman has been involved in numerous voting rights cases.
Given the potentially costly lawsuit, it makes sense to begin moving to voting districts, city officials said.
"It's a no-win situation for the council," said Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer. "The way the law is written, when you have a large enough population, you will go to districts."
And if residents reject district-based elections in November, Costa Mesa still could be at risk of a lawsuit.
Some were concerned that moving to districts could "Balkanize" the city.
"We're all Costa Mesans," Mayor Steve Mensinger said. "We're not District 1 or District 2 or District 3 or District 4 — we're all here for the community and we're all here for the betterment of the community.
At-large voting systems have come under fire in recent years from those who claim they dilute the electoral power of minority voters.
"Under the CVRA, at-large voting is sort of going the way of the dinosaur, it appears," said lawyer Kim Barlow, who negotiated on behalf of the city to avoid a lawsuit by Shenkman in exchange for putting the district system to a public vote.
Some residents said moving to districts would help empower communities.
"You want someone that lives around your area, that knows your area, to go up there and fight for your area," said Eastside resident Luis Bravo.
Voting-rights lawsuits have been filed or threatened against other cities in Orange County, including Anaheim, Fullerton, Garden Grove and San Juan Capistrano. All have taken steps to move to district-based elections.
Costa Mesa has retained a consultant, Compass Demographics, at an estimated cost of $20,000 to direct the process of creating voting districts. The undertaking will include extensive outreach and community participation, city officials said.