BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
Menlo Park City Council, in response to a threatened lawsuit, voted unanimously last night to take the first step toward switching from at-large council elections to district elections to make it easier for blacks and Latinos in the Belle Haven neighborhood to win a seat on council.
Council didn’t change the election system last night, but they indicated their intent to make changes following a process involving a number of public hearings.
The move is in response to a letter Aug. 21 from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who contends the city is racially polarized and that it is therefore required under state law to switch to district elections to make it easier for Belle Haven residents to win at the polls.
Shenkman didn’t identify his client. City Attorney Bill McClure said the law allows Shenkman to keep his client’s name confidential for now to spare the person from possible retaliation. The name would become public if the threat materializes into a lawsuit.
If the council switched to district elections, each district would have the same number of residents. A voter, who now can pick all five council members, would only be able to vote for one person to represent them.
Vice Mayor Peter Ohtaki said while he is in favor of going to district elections, he also wants to be sure the new districts will not disenfranchise Asian voters, who are more spread out through the city.
It is also possible that some of the existing council members might end up in the same district. Ray Mueller, Rich Cline and Ohtaki all live west of El Camino Real. Catherine Carlton lives farther west in Sharon Heights while Kirsten Keith’s home is the Willows neighborhood near Highway 101.
No ballot measure required
The council can decide on its own whether to go to district elections, and a vote of the community is not required, McClure said.
Before the council can make such a switch, it must have two public hearings to hear from residents, according to McClure.
These two meetings will be on Monday, Oct. 30, and Wednesday, Nov. 29.
After those two meetings, the council can then have a cartographer draw up lines, by using feedback from residents and census data — not voter registration data — to create the districts. After the districts are drawn up, the council will have to host two more hearings.
The process will require the city to hire a demographics firm, which could run about $75,000, McClure said.
Dividing the city into five districts was the main option discussed at last night’s council meeting, but there are other choices.
If the city wanted to change its charter — which could be a long process that would entail creating a charter commission and an election — Menlo Park could go for options that include ranked-choice voting, where all residents rank their first, second and third choices. If a candidate didn’t get a majority of people’s first choice votes, then the seat would go to the candidate getting the majority of second-choice votes, and so on.
Another option is cumulative voting, which is when there are two seats up for grabs, a voter can vote two times for one candidate or vote for two separate candidates.
It’s unclear whether ranked-choice voting or cumulative voting would meet the requirements of the California Voting Rights Act, which attorney Shenkman is citing in his lawsuit threat.
Other options include having the city go to five, seven or nine council members, with some of them elected by districts and others running at large.
Another choice is to divide the city into four districts and have a fifth council member elected city-wide.
One choice touched on briefly last night was to have four council members elected by districts and have a mayor elected city-wide. The idea was that each council member could focus on their district while the mayor would be concerned about the entire city.
Two residents of the Willows, Jen Mazzon and Julie Shansen, told council they like having Keith on council because they feel like their neighborhood’s concerns are represented on council, and Belle Haven has not seen that sort of representation for decades now.
The last Belle Haven council member
The last city council member to have lived in the Belle Haven was Billy Ray White, who was on council from 1978 to 1986.
“I think it is time to right some wrongs,” Shansen said.
Menlo Park is not the first jurisdiction in the county to switch to district elections. In 2012, San Mateo County switched from at-large elections to districts for the five members of the Board of Supervisors. The Sequoia Union High School District and the San Mateo County Community College District have both recently switched their at-large elections to district elections.