The fate of future elections in Costa Mesa is in local voters’ hands after City Council members voted Tuesday night to officially place on November’s ballot a proposal to expand the number of representatives on the council to seven, including a mayor elected by the public.
Tuesday’s 3-2 vote, with council members Katrina Foley and Sandy Genis opposed, was greeted with both a smattering of applause and a low chorus of boos from a packed house at City Hall.
Voters will decide this fall whether to adopt the plan, which would split Costa Mesa into six voting districts. Residents in each district would elect one council member from that area to represent them.
Currently, the five council members are elected by citywide vote.
Under the council’s districting plan, all Costa Mesa voters would be able to choose a mayor who would be elected for two years and could serve two consecutive terms.
Currently, the mayor is selected by a majority vote of the council and serves in that post for two years.
Council members currently are elected for four years and can serve two consecutive terms, though they can return in a later year.
Under the new plan, a council member who otherwise would be termed out would be able to run for mayor.
The council agreed earlier this year to seek voter approval to change to a district election system as part of an agreement to stave off a threatened lawsuit over allegations that Costa Mesa’s current citywide voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by diluting the power of Latino residents to influence council elections.
Several speakers at Tuesday’s council meeting favored the plan, saying they like the idea of voting directly for mayor and support how the district boundaries were drawn.
However, most of the dozens of residents who spoke opposed the plan, saying an elected mayor would unbalance the council because there would be one district where both the mayor and a council member are residents.
Opponents also argued that the council’s endorsement of the plan shows disregard for the public’s perspective, since many residents who attended a series of community meetings in June said they didn’t want a mayor elected at-large and preferred a five-district map.
Wendy Leece, a former council member, questioned whether a council vote July 5 favoring the plan for six districts and a directly elected mayor may have violated the state open-meetings law because “neither the ... agenda nor the agenda report mentioned that the City Council would be discussing and possibly voting that night to put an elected at-large mayor on the November ballot.”
She said she has sent a letter to the Orange County district attorney’s office asking for an investigation.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said he doesn’t think districts are a good system but that an elected mayor would provide citywide perspective to balance out council members who will be focused on representing their specific districts.
A council member who wants to eventually run for mayor would have to demonstrate that he or she represents the interests of the whole community, not just a slice of it, Righeimer added.
“Of course, the mayor is going to be from one of those districts,” he said. “But the reality of it is, they are running citywide and they have to make sure the people in the community know they are running citywide.”
Righeimer said he thinks “the fact that we are now going to create a Hispanic district [District 4 would be predominantly Latino] is not a good thing” and that “the issue here is ... more of culture than it is about race.”
“The reality of it is, compared to other races and ethnicities … you don’t turn up and vote in those districts like everybody else turns up and votes,” he said.
Foley said Righeimer’s comments should serve as a challenge to those who disagree with the council majority.
“He basically said you don’t matter because you don’t vote, so please prove him wrong,” she said.
Kevin Shenkman, the attorney with Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes who threatened to sue Costa Mesa over its current balloting method, said Wednesday that he thinks a mayor elected by citywide vote could pose an issue since “a system that has any at-large elected council member, regardless of title, is still potentially subject to challenge under the CVRA.”
Shenkman has filed or threatened lawsuits against several Southern California cities over at-large voting systems.
However, he said, the plan approved by the Costa Mesa council is “a huge step in the right direction,” since six of the council’s seven members would be elected by district.
“In a sense, we’re getting six-sevenths of a complete remedy, which is a whole lot better than zero,” Shenkman said.
City officials have warned that, should residents reject the districting proposal in November, Shenkman’s threatened lawsuit could become a reality.
When asked if he or his clients would consider restarting litigation against the city if the plan fails, Shenkman responded, “Absolutely.”
Proposed Costa Mesa voting districts
District 1: Mesa Verde, Upper and Lower Birds, the State Streets, Wimbledon Village and the SoCo 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, email@example.com