By C. Jayden Smith
When the candidates for the San Clemente City Council race participated in the first election forum last month, one comment from council hopeful Donna Vidrine about conducting by-district elections received significant applause from the audience.
“With 65,000 (residents), we could look at district elections, so we have better representation and less talk,” Vidrine said.
The candidate later told San Clemente Times that she believed switching from the current system of at-large elections would provide more equitable representation for areas such as North Beach and South San Clemente.
Vidrine also wanted the city to avoid costly litigation, such as what the city of Dana Point was threatened with before instituting by-district voting in 2018, and what the South Coast Water District experienced in 2020.
“Even though the City Council acts as a whole on behalf of San Clemente, I think we would have better representation that understands the needs and interests of specific parts of our city and can help expand civic interest and engagement,” she said.
Speaking with residents and business owners in the southern part of the city throughout her campaign, Vidrine added that there was a “recurring theme” of wanting extended trolley service and sidewalk washing.
Additionally, homelessness and parking are pressing issues for North Beach residents, she said, both of which are not major concerns for Forrester Ranch people such as herself.
“When I talk to the voters, they say, ‘We want less talk and more action,’” Vidrine said. “‘We’ve heard so much talk about (e-bikes), we’ve heard so much talk about homelessness … What is the strategic plan?’”
She said she favored putting the decision in front of San Clemente residents in the form of a vote and working with city leadership to determine the next steps.
Speaking with SC Times, Mayor Gene James and Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan both referenced that residents previously voted down a measure to set up district elections in 2018.
However, the remaining threat of litigation is real, as the 2001 California Voting Right Act has provided increasing opportunities for legal groups and counsel to challenge cities for potential violations since 2011, according to the National Demographics Corporation (NDC).
The CVRA aims to end instances of racially polarized voting in at-large elections, in which candidates that receive significant support from protected classes often lose.
More than 500 cities, counties, school districts, and special districts in California now hold by-district elections, a number that has increased more than threefold since 2011, according to NDC.
NDC President Doug Johnson said this month that the consulting firm guides state entities through whether to switch to by-district elections, as well as through the actual process of switching.
“Before the CVRA was in place, there were 29 cities in the state that had district elections, and now we’re over 175,” Johnson said.
He added that he thought the trend would continue and that cities should be aware of risk—a sentiment shared by James.
In January and March, respectively, the cities of Diamond Bar and La Palma received a demand to transition to a district-based system from counsel representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.The group had alleged Latino voters’ impact was diluted in at-large elections.
The Diamond Bar and La Palma City Councils both voted within months to declare intentions to transition, with La Palma utilizing NDC to begin the process and adopt a district map at its Oct. 4 meeting.
In an email, James spoke about the upside of district elections, including the decrease of cost that candidates would have to spend on their campaigns.
“However, our voters have made it very clear at the ballot box they want to be represented by all five Councilmembers,” James said. “My primary concern is Councilmembers could have parochial interests for their district rather than the interest of the city as a whole.”
Duncan said he thought the concept of such elections was positive but referenced local cities that voted to appoint council candidates running unopposed instead of holding an election, as had happened this year in the neighboring Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano.
“I actually think that the Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano examples are why you might not want to do district elections, because they can’t find candidates to run in some of the races,” said Duncan.
Duncan added that there are people who would prefer to vote for other candidates but only have one representing their district.
“We have not faced any litigation yet, and hopefully we won’t,” Duncan said about fears of legal action. “I wouldn’t want to speculate, but I think the fact that we have not faced any litigation is probably a sign that our city may not be well suited to the districting model.”
If the city were to initiate the transition to district elections, the process would take between three and six months, according to Johnson. The current council would have to hold five required hearings, and possibly organize additional workshops or community forums—a procedure that Johnson said numerous other entities follow.
Under the Fair Maps Act, cities are required to retain communities and neighborhoods, to be as compact as possible, and ensure an equal number of people for each district.
Vidrine said she supported being proactive in allocating necessary staff resources and time towards investigating how to establish districts, and said she wanted city leadership to encourage activism and participation in city commissions and committees.
When the permanent city manager is eventually approved and new commission and committee appointees are made, Vidrine said she hopes to see a shift away from politics and toward proper community representation.
“City Council and commissions and committees are nonpartisan; that’s how it should be. That’s not how it’s been in the recent past,” she said. “We need to bring people to the committees, to the commissions because of their expertise and what they bring.”
For those interested in learning more about how jurisdictions may address vulnerabilities regarding the CVRA, Best, Best, & Krieger Law will host a webinar on Nov. 3, from 10-11:30 a.m., featuring presenters from BB&K such as San Clemente City Attorney Scott Smith and outside data analysts.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.