National City moving to district-based elections
By Tammy Murga
National City will ditch its at-large, citywide electoral system for a district-based arrangement, following a unanimous City Council vote Tuesday.
The transition means the city will be split into geographic districts and voters residing in each district will only be able to vote for candidates living within their districts. The new system is expected to be used in the November 2022 election.
National City will join 13 other San Diego County jurisdictions that have district-based elections. Coronado, Del Mar, La Mesa and Lemon Grove continue to operate under at-large systems.
The council’s vote comes after National City received a Nov. 8 letter from attorney Audie J. de Castro alleging the city’s current election system violates the California Voting Rights Act and marginalizes the city’s Filipino/API (Asian Pacific Islander) residents, who make up nearly 20 percent of the city’s 61,000 population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
De Castro had urged the city to adopt a resolution by Jan. 13 stating its intention to change its voting system or face potential litigation.
News of the unanimous vote was well received by several Filipino/API residents and community groups. They said that while Filipino-Americans have run for office, they have lacked representation on the council over the past two decades.
“It’s long overdue,” Ditas Yamane, who sits on the city’s Planning Commission and who ran for local office in the 2020 election, said Wednesday. “(The council) needs the vote of the Filipinos because we’re the swing votes but we don’t want to be a swing vote anymore. We want to be a part of the policymaking, of the influence that’s happening in the city that we contribute economically.”
The Asian Pacific American Coalition, which focuses on educating and empowering San Diego’s API community, said in a statement that the change will offer residents a “fair chance to become mayor or serve on the council.”
“Seeing someone who looks like you in an elected position who understands your specific needs matters,” read their statement.
“I think this is a great accomplishment for the city as a whole,” said de Castro. “But the more I think about it, it’s just great for National City because it’s not just only Filipino Americans who I think deserve to be better heard, but I think geographically, the city can be better heard by other communities of interests.”
Tuesday’s public comments, which included a petition with more than 100 signatures, were mostly in support of district-based elections. One written comment read that the transition would create division and competition against districts.
In declaring their intention to switch, the city must now complete the full transition within 90 days (March 21) under state law.
National City could request an additional 90 days to finish the process, which must include holding public hearings to gather feedback regarding the composition of the future districts. De Castro said he would “be willing to negotiate in good faith” with the city should they need more time. Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis said Tuesday she was confident the city will meet the March deadline.
“All of the elements that are so important and vital are really taken into account as we look at our district maps. So, we call on all the members of the public to come out and give us your perspective,” she said. “We’ve got 90 days to move, and move quickly but efficiently and effectively, and we can do that.”
Councilmember Ron Morrison said he would prefer the city use the additional 90 days as the option is available to avoid rushing the process.
“This needs to be a very thorough process. We’re not doing redistricting, we are doing districting, which is the harder thing to do because you’re starting from scratch,” he said.
Council members greenlighted the first steps Tuesday by approving an agreement with Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC for up to $105,000 to serve as the city’s demographic consultant.
The city has denied de Castro’s claim that its current system disenfranchised minority voter.
City Attorney Charles E. Bell recommended the city implement district-based elections, however, to avoid legal costs.
Aleks Giragosian, senior counsel with Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC, told the council that every city faced with a similar letter, such as Escondido, Modesto and Palmdale, and fought it in court has lost after several million dollars in legal fees.
Tuesday’s vote will reduce the city’s exposure to a lawsuit and any other potential claims, as well as allow the city to cap potential attorneys’ fees at $30,000 to de Castro for work related to the CVRA notice.
Public meetings could begin by next month, city officials said.