Plan for voting districts and publicly elected mayor wins big in Costa Mesa

Tuesday's election could be the last in which Costa Mesa City Council members are elected by citywide vote.

Local voters overwhelmingly endorsed a plan to split the city into six voting districts and have a mayor elected by the public at large. Thus it would expand the number of people on the council to seven from five.

With all precincts reporting Wednesday morning, 64.7% of voters were in favor of the districting plan, according to figures from the Orange County registrar of voters office.

Under the proposal, listed on the ballot as Measure EE, residents in each district would elect one council member from that area to represent them.

Currently, all council members are chosen by voters citywide, and the mayor is selected by a majority vote of the members.

The new system is expected to be in place in time for the next council election in November 2018, when two seats will be up for grabs.

Council members agreed earlier this year to seek voter approval to change the election system. The move was part of a pact made to stave off a threatened lawsuit by activists who alleged the current at-large voting method violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by diluting the ability of local Latino residents to elect their preferred candidates.

In one of the planned voting districts — a jagged piece of territory south of the Fairview Developmental Center — the majority of eligible voters are Latino.

The city also agreed to pay $55,000 to cover legal costs for those who made the claim: Costa Mesa resident Eloisa Rangel and the nonprofit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

The attorney for both, Kevin Shenkman of Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes, said Wednesday that he was a bit surprised Measure EE received as much support as it did.

"Based on the makeup of the city demographics-wise [mostly white] and partisan-wise [mostly conservative] and all of that, I didn't expect it to be that big of a margin," Shenkman said. "But I think it's great that it is."

The districting plan drew criticism from some local residents who said they would prefer a five-district system.

Having a mayor elected by citywide vote, critics added, would give one of the districts two representatives on the council.

Others claimed the mayoral position is intended as a way to get around term limits that restrict council members to two consecutive four-year terms — though they can return in a later year.

Measure EE stipulates that the mayor would be elected for two years and could serve two consecutive terms.

It would not prohibit a termed-out council member from running from mayor, and vice versa.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis, who voted against the districting plan when it went before the council in July, said she wasn't expecting the measure "to pass that overwhelmingly."

"I do like the idea of districts, but when they threw the directly elected mayor into the mix at the last minute, I didn't really like that," Genis said Wednesday.

"With an at-large mayor, it is still potentially subject to challenge under the CVRA," Shenkman said. "But I don't want to denigrate 80% of the council being districted when before it was zero. Eighty is a lot better than zero, and we're happy with where we are."

Proposed Costa Mesa voting districts

• District 1: Mesa Verde, Upper and Lower Birds, State Streets, Wimbledon Village and the South Coast Collection area. Includes the Fairview Developmental Center.

• District 2: Halecrest, Mesa North, South Coast Metro and the Sobeca District

• District 3: College Park, Mesa del Mar and a small slice of the Eastside just east of the 55 Freeway. Includes Orange Coast College, Vanguard University and the OC Fair & Event Center.

• District 4: Dense Westside pocket south of the Fairview Developmental Center, ranging from Harbor Boulevard west to Monrovia Avenue and south to West 17th Street

• District 5: Wraps around District 4, taking in downtown and about half the Westside. Includes Fairview Park and Talbert Regional Park.

• District 6: Covers virtually all of the Eastside, except the portion in District 3

luke.money@latimes.com

Twitter: @LukeMMoney

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