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Temecula expected to approve electing its city council by district

The move, which is happening all over the state, is being made to avoid lawsuits related to voter discrimination. Whether district elections provide the best representation for small to medium-sized cities remains open to debate.

Add Temecula to the list of California cities that elect their city councils by district rather than at large.

While it’s not official yet, the Temecula City Council on Tuesday is expected to approve a plan that will divide the city in southwest Riverside County – population 111,024 –  into five districts. Instead of having council members who live anywhere in the city, each council member will be elected by the voters in the district where the council member resides.

The council, which has held three public hearings on the issue, will also select one of three district maps, City Clerk Randi Johl said.

Two of the districts will begin selecting their council representatives in 2018, with the remaining three scheduled to follow suit it 2020, according to plans drawn up by National Demographics Corp. in Claremont.

Not everyone is pleased with the move.

“I personally don’t believe that districts are good for a city the size of Temecula,” said Councilman Mike Naggar, who is serving his fifth council term. “I don’t think that’s how you get the best representation. “They work great in large cities like Los Angeles, where you have more diversity, but not here.”

Still, like a lot of  California cities during the past two years, Temecula is almost certain to switch to a council elected by district, mostly because of a Malibu law firm that is threatening the city with legal action for alleged violations of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Shenkman & Hughes has made a cottage industry out of threatening cities with lawsuits of the state’s voting rights act, which is modeled after the U.S. Voting Rights Act that President Lyndon Johnson signed in 1965.

Like the federal act of 52 years ago, the California Voting Rights Act prevents cities from lessening the voting power of minorities through at-large elections.

But the law firm alleges that racial and ethnic minorities are often under represented on city councils that are elected at large. It argues that district representation is more equitable because it assures that at least one district will represent the interest of minorities.

“No one has been able to beat them in court,” Naggar said. “Some cities have tried, and all that happened was they ended up spending a lot of money in court fees. It’s a lot easier just to go to districts.”

Which is what a lot of cities have done.

Fifty nine cities in California, including 11 in the Inland Empire – Banning, Chino, Colton, Eastvale, Hemet, Highland, Menifee, Moreno Valley, Riverside, San Bernardino and Yucaipa – currently hold district elections, according to Common Cause, a nonpartisan “good government” organization based in Washington, D.C.

Sixteen cities – including Chino Hills, Corona, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands and Upland – will shift to district elections next year, Common Cause stated in a lengthy report on trends and practices in local government that it published last year.

Cathedral City will make the move in 2022, and more cities up and down the state will likely follow, in part because of statutes passed recently by the state legislature.

As of Jan. 1, cities with a population of 100,000 or more are allowed to change to district elections by passing an ordinance, as Temecula is doing, rather than letting voters decide the issue.

“The state legislature has made it clear that it wants cities to go to [district elections], and the whole thing has grown from there,” said Dane Hutchings, a legislative representative with the Sacramento-based League of California Cities last November, when Rancho Cucamonga voted to go to district elections. “They [Rancho Cucamonga] were thinking about doing that anyway, and the threat of a lawsuit just moved things along for them a little bit faster.”

But city councils should not be passing ordinances so they can avoid lawsuits, and districts do  not necessarily provide the strongest representation in cities like Temecula, Naggar said.

“Someone who represents a district is probably going to put the interests of the district first, but what’s best for the district might not be what’s best for the whole city,” Naggar said. “In  my view, districts put politics into something that should not be political.”

During his presentation to the city council on June 27, Doug Johnson, president of National Demographics, seemed to support Naggar’s claim that district elections are not necessarily a good fit in Temecula.

“In terms of the federal voting rights act, there is no majority Latino district possible here,” Thompson said. “You don’t have a large, geographically compact Latino population. Often we talk about the Latino-majority seat, or the Asian-majority seat, but there is none here. The city’s demographics don’t support that.”

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