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District map quagmire rekindled in Encinitas with fresh misconduct claims

ENCINITAS — A looming electoral redistricting process coupled with last month’s District 3 appointment of Councilwoman Joy Lyndes to the Encinitas City Council has renewed old feelings of suspicion and betrayal among residents who still feel the city’s initial districting was nothing short of a fiasco.

Some critics, including former office-holders, maintain the city’s transition from citywide to district elections was less than transparent and tainted with secret maps and gerrymandering, leading to the ouster of a conservative councilman and helping to solidify Mayor Catherine Blakespear’s leftward influence over the council.

And a recent utterance from an Encinitas representative only reignited long-smoldering embers of voter discontent over the city’s electoral changeover, leading to fresh allegations of official misconduct.

“We know why that part of the city is in District 3, it’s because Mark (Muir) lived, you know, over there, and we wanted to make sure that every council member wasn’t competing against one another,” Kranz said during a Feb. 24 meeting.

Specifically, Kranz’s remarks sparked outrage among residents online who allege the councilman’s comments revealed a collective knowledge among council members to rig the districting process in favor of Democrats.

These claims have raised questions, such as whether sitting council members violated California’s Brown Act, a “sunshine” law requiring local government business to be conducted at open and public meetings.

According to the law: “A majority of the members of a legislative body shall not, outside a meeting authorized by this chapter, use a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.”

Origins

In 2017, the city of Encinitas was under threat of legal action from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman to transition from at-large to by-district elections.

Shenkman and others used the California Voting Rights Act to disrupt political systems in numerous cities across the state, forcing municipalities into district-based elections with the intention of rooting out discriminatory voting practices and improving minority representation primarily for Latinos (In Encinitas, the Hispanic population has remained steady at roughly 14% (as of 2019) and is spread out across the entire city).

Since then, analysis suggests that by-district elections had minimal effect statewide helping minority communities receive better representation. The Los Angeles Times reported fewer than one-third of the cities that switched to districts in response to litigation demands between June 2016 and April 2017 saw an increase in minority representation.

To sidestep a costly legal battle, the City of Encinitas requested anonymous map submissions of districting proposals. Planning Commissioner Kevin Doyle felt the idea to switch to district elections was an “awful idea.”

“We must ensure that the future councils won’t be able to gerrymander districts to their liking,” Doyle said in an article by the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Good luck with that, but it must be foolproof.”

Doyle’s remark was a warning, premonition or both. After receiving more than 20 prototypes from residents and staff, city officials selected finalists, including two maps labeled “Citizens 15” and “Citizens 16.”

The “Citizens 16” map divided the city into four quadrants. But it was one quartile — District 3 — that quickly became problematic. The map looks like a crooked finger stretching from Cardiff-by-the-Sea into neighborhoods of both New and Old Encinitas.

Citizens Map 16
The Encinitas City Council voted 3-2 on Nov. 8, 2017, to select “Citizens Map 16” as the new electoral map. But from the beginning, residents and city officials raised concerns about gerrymandering. Courtesy photo

The Coast News later discovered via public records request that former Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath had drawn and submitted both “Citizens 15” and “Citizens 16,” a detail she chose not to disclose to the council or residents until after the story broke.

Boerner Horvath explained her decision to remain anonymous was to allow the council to review the maps based on their individual attributes and “how they fulfilled our goals that we have set forth in this districting process.”

As previously reported by The Coast News, Boerner Horvath further defended her actions by noting that just months earlier, the Poway City Council set a precedent when it chose as its final map one created by Mayor Steve Vaus, who did not disclose it during a hearing when his map was selected as a finalist.

For some, it wasn’t a coincidence the council’s final two maps were drawn by Boerner Horvath. At the time, Blakespear said she didn’t believe Boerner Horvath had an obligation to disclose it, noting her maps “came from a place of knowledge” because the future state assemblywoman frequently walked the entire city.

Despite rumblings of gerrymandering, secret drawings and cover-ups, the council adopted “Citizens 16” as the map for future district elections.

Fallout

Former Councilman Mark Muir, a longtime conservative, suddenly found himself within a sliver of creative cartography that defined a portion of District 3.

For Muir and many others, the drawing had all the signs of a gerrymandered district. Muir lives in Old Encinitas, but District 3 consisted mostly of Cardiff residents.

And not just a little bit — Cardiff residents outnumber Old Encinitas residents, 2 to 1, according to the city’s District 3 address list.

The number of Cardiff-by-the-Sea residents compared with those living in Old Encinitas in District 3 is greater than 2 to 1, according to the city’s District 3 address list. Cardiff and Old Encinitas residents were differentiated by ZIP code (Source: City of Encinitas). Graphic by Dan Brendel

Kranz also recently acknowledged the map did not favor Muir or any District 3 candidate residing outside of Cardiff.

“There’s no question (the map) made it more of a challenge for someone that lived in that panhandled part of the district,” Kranz said.

For Muir, who described himself to The Coast News recently as happily retired, the whole situation appeared to be a coordinated effort to remove conservative-leaning council members.

“Oh yeah, absolutely I had that sense in the very beginning,” Muir told The Coast News. “Firstly, it was done secretively. They only admit to it when they get busted. And the way the votes came out, how it was handled, conversations that took place, led me to believe it was (a group effort). I’d be surprised if three people didn’t know about it.”

“There are too many indicators that look as if it’s a Brown Act violation,” he continued. “But you can’t prove it. At the time, I made the assumption, but I couldn’t prove it. It’s just the way it is. If it looks like it’s happening, sounds like it’s happening and you see indicators it’s happening, it’s probably happening.”

Pam Slater Price, a former Encinitas Mayor and County Supervisor, told The Coast News she would “second Muir’s” sentiments, noting that none of the council members raised strenuous objections or voted against the adoption of the maps drawn by Boerner Horvath.

“I think that Mark himself knows that he was districted out of his base,” Slater-Price said. “The whole thing just reeks of insider dealing. I don’t know how else to describe it. This entire council seems to be dominated by the mayor and her perspective. All but Kranz have been originally appointed by (Blakespear). To have no diverse viewpoints on the council is unhealthy and yet this is how this particular council is being run.”

Political Games?

Kranz said he is not in favor of keeping District 3’s “funky shape,” and he would like to rectify the situation by returning to at-large elections or, at the very least, hiring an independent agency to redraw the district maps.

“It’s more important to me, whether we feel it’s necessary to make changes to the district boundaries, to more closely replicate the five communities that were established as part of incorporation,” Kranz said.

The Encinitas City Council bids farewell to outgoing Councilman Mark Muir in 2018 following his electoral loss to Councilwoman Jody Hubbard for the District 3 council seat. Hubbard resigned in Jan. 2021 due to advanced lung cancer and was replaced by Councilwoman Joy Lyndes. Photo by James Wang

Kranz denied having personal foreknowledge of the maps and did not believe other council members had collective knowledge, but he acknowledged the city has shifted slightly further to the left in recent years.

“I would say it’s become much more progressive,” Kranz told The Coast News. “I think it’s more closely in line with the majority opinion about the values we have as a city. We hear plenty of feedback from people with different perspectives. So, the political system is working.”

Muir said he still keeps an eye on Encinitas politics and believes the council has become too partisan and homogenized under Blakespear. He said he remains a proponent of seating a council that represents a more diverse set of voices.

“Look at all the appointments and commission seats, they’re all Democrats,” Muir said. “I get the parties are extreme, but there are a lot of good people on the right and left.”

As for the district map situation, Muir said it doesn’t really bother him anymore. But he does worry it could happen again to another District 3 candidate.

“I don’t like being a person looking backward. No regrets,” Muir said. “But I hope moving forward they find a way that’s more equitable, independent, logical and makes sense. And not play the games they did with me.”

Afterword

In 2016, a neighborhood organization and resident, backed by Shenkman, sued the City of Santa Monica alleging at-large elections discriminated against Latinos.

A trial court agreed with the plaintiffs but the California 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed the ruling, noting the city’s election system did not violate state or federal laws.

But the case isn’t over. In December 2020, the California Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s petition for review.

If the state’s high court upholds the reversal, cities that reluctantly made the change to district elections could have a legal basis for returning to at-large.