Facing a lawsuit threat, city may switch to district elections

Daily Post Staff Writer

Menlo Park City Council will meet Oct. 4 to decide what they should do after a lawyer threatened to sue the city if it didn’t change from at-large elections for council members to a district system, where each member would represent a specific part of town.

The threat was made in order to give the Belle Haven neighborhood, with a high Latino and black population, a better chance of electing one of its own residents to council.



Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman sent the city a letter on Aug. 21 saying if the council doesn’t pass a resolution saying it intends to switch to district elections by Oct. 5, he’ll sue.

His letter says that because the city elects its five council members through at-large elections — where all city residents vote for all the seats — minorities are unable to elect one of their own to council.

Shenkman points to Belle Haven resident Cecilia Taylor’s unsuccessful Menlo Park council bid last November as an example of the problem. Taylor is African American. Shenkman also says no Latinos have ever run for council.

In the past 45 years, six blacks have run for City Council and two — Billy Ray White and Nicholas Jellins — won seats, according to a report by City Attorney Bill McClure.

Menlo Park has a population of about 33,000, and Latinos represent 18% while blacks are 5%, Asians are 10% and whites are 70%.

McClure’s report says that according to the census, 73% of the city’s blacks live in the Belle Haven and 69% of the city’s Latino population live there.

However, his report didn’t offer figures for the number of registered voters in the Belle Haven. If council went to five districts, each district would have to have about the same number of voters. It couldn’t be determined yesterday whether the Belle Haven would have enough registered voters to equal one-fifth of the city’s voters, or whether another nearby neighborhood, like maybe the Willows or Flood Park, would have to be included in the Belle Haven district.



Council could decide to switch to district elections without going to the voters for approval, McClure said. So it’s possible such a change could take place before the November 2018 council elections when three seats are up for grabs.

McClure recommended that the council Wednesday adopt a letter of intent to switch to district elections so the city does not get sued. Cities that have been sued over election districting have lost, those cities have been forced to pay Shenkman on average $3.5 million.

The council will meet at 7:30 p.m., on Wednesday at City Hall, 701 Laurel St.