National City Council to discuss moving to district-based elections
By Tammy Murga
National City is considering transitioning from at-large, citywide elections to district-based elections to avoid potential litigation after receiving a letter alleging the current arrangement violates the California Voting Rights Act.
The City Council will hold a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the potential switch.
Attorney Audie J. de Castro sent a letter to the city on Nov. 8 on behalf of “several residents and communities-of-interest in the City of National City who are members of the Filipino/API (Asian Pacific Islander) community,” alleging that at-large elections dilute the votes of that community.
“This community represents the 2nd largest ethnic group in the City. There is also substantial private investment in the City because of it – which substantially contributes to the City’s economy and culture,” de Castro says. “It has been denied adequate representation on the City’s five-member council for decades.”
Across San Diego County, the Filipino/API community makes up about 12 percent of the population, with about 400,000 residents and 30,000 businesses, according to the San Diego Association of Governments.National City has one of the largest concentrations, forming nearly 20 percent of the city’s 61,000 population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
National City officials have declined to comment on the potential litigation.
In the resolution to be considered Tuesday, the city denies de Castro’s claims and says it has a “history of inclusionary voting and supports the rights of all members of the National City community, including minority community members to elect the candidate of their choice.”
City Attorney Charles E. Bell is recommending the city transition to district-based elections to avoid legal costs. Other California cities that have fought to retain at-large voting have incurred hefty legal fees. For example, Santa Monica spent more than $10 million in 2020 to try and keep its at-large system. It is expected that plaintiffs will seek at least double that amount in attorney fees if they prevail at the Supreme Court, city staff highlighted in their report.
The proposed resolution reads that “the public interest would be better served by considering a transition to a district-based electoral system” because of the “extraordinary” costs that could arise in defending against a CVRA lawsuit and paying attorney fees.
Should National City move forward with transitioning, city staff estimates the city will invest about $80,000 for a demographer, $25,000 in legal fees, $15,000 in public outreach and up to $30,000 in attorneys’ fees paid to de Castro for work related to researching or drafting the demand letters.
De Castro had given the city until Thursday to declare its intention to make the switch in time for the November 2022 elections. On Dec. 5, he extended the deadline to Jan. 13 due to the holidays.
The city would have to conduct a minimum of four public hearings and adopt election district maps in a rather short timeline. Under the state’s election code, the city could work with De Castro to extend the process no more than six months before the 2022 elections.
The City Council virtual meeting begins at 6 p.m.