BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
A Malibu attorney has sent a letter to Redwood City officials saying they better switch from at-large to district elections for City Council or he’ll sue them.
Attorney Kevin Shenkman contends that at-large elections make it more difficult for Latinos, who represent 39% of the city’s population, to win seats on council. The seven-member council has just one Latina — Alicia Aguirre.
Shenkman points out that Aguirre’s tenure on the council began in January 2005 when she was appointed, not elected, “underscoring the inability of Latinos to elect in the first place a candidate of their choice.”
After she was appointed, Aguirre was elected in November 2005 and re-elected in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
Aguirre, however, is not the only racial minority on the council — Jeff Gee is Asian American and Ian Bain is African American.
Shenkman’s letter also claims incorrectly that Aguirre has been the only Latina candidate in the past 15 years.
However, Planning Commissioner Ernie Schmidt, who is Latino, who is currently running for council and ran for a seat in 2013.
Still, Shenkman maintains the city is “hostile” to Latinos.
“Therefore, not only is the contrast between the significant Latino proportion of the electorate and the virtual absence of Latinos to run for or be elected to the city’s council outwardly disturbing, it is also fundamentally hostile towards Latino participation.”
Similar threats to Menlo Park
Shenkman’s letter, which arrived on Aug. 8, comes almost exactly a year after he sent a letter to Menlo Park, threatening the same thing. Due to Shenkman’s letter, the council voted to switch to districts, causing for the city to be split up into five districts. This year will be the first district elections for Menlo Park.
Shenkman made similar claims in his letter to Menlo Park as he did in the one to Redwood City. He points out that Menlo Park has a population of about 33,000, and Latinos represent 18% while African Americans represent 5%.
Despite the switch to district elections, no Latino candidates signed up to run for council this fall. However, the race drew two African American candidates — Cecilia Taylor and Drew Combs. Each has run previously.
$30,000 a city
Cities across the state have received similar demand letters from Shenkman over the past few years. He cites the California Voting Rights Act, which allows him to collect up to $30,000 for legal expenses in writing the letter, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Most cities agree to his terms and switch to district elections. Palmdale, in Southern California, decided to fight him and lost. A court granted Shenkman’s firm $4.6 million to cover his firm’s expenses for the trial.
“It’s just a money-making scheme,” said Mary Azevedo, a political consultant in Oceanside, another city that got a demand letter from Shenkman.
“It’s not for the betterment of any city or group of individuals,” Azevedo told the Union-Tribune.
In his letter, Shenkman did not identify a person or persons in Redwood City that he is representing. He said he is representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which is based in San Antonio, Texas.
Shenkman also didn’t identify anyone he might be representing in Menlo Park, and officials there made no effort to unmask the resident who hired him.
Other jurisdictions changing to districts
Menlo Park and Redwood City are not the only cities in San Mateo County to receive such letters from Shenkman or like-minded lawyers. Half Moon Bay, South San Francisco, San Mateo County Harbor Commission, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Sequoia Health Care District, Redwood City Elementary School District, San Mateo County Community College Board and the Sequoia High School District board have all received letters citing racial polarization as a reason to switch to by-district elections under threat of being sued.
Redwood City has until Sept. 22 to respond to Shenkman’s letter. City spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan said in an email yesterday that the city is “evaluating next steps.”