North County cities have spent more than $1 million switching from traditional at-large elections to a system that elects City Council members by voting districts, according to a tally by U-T Watchdog. The change has been spurred by a Malibu attorney threatening to sue cities over voting rights, but many officials see the effort as opportunism rather than any sincere desire to offer better representation to minority communities. “It’s just a money-making scheme,” said Oceanside consultant Mary Azevedo, who’s helped run numerous local political campaigns. “It’s not for the betterment of any city or group of individuals.” The attorney, Kevin Shenkman, said his motives are pure and “it’s about time” that minorities get the voice they deserve in local government.
Shenkman sends each city a “demand letter” to initiate the switch under the California Voting Rights Act and, under an amendment effective this year, the law allows him to collect up to $30,000 for legal expenses involved in writing the letter.
Shenkman said he’s losing money on the demand letters. His law firm, Shenkman and Hughes, only makes money when someone goes to court to fight his demand.
“The biggest payday that we had was with the city of Palmdale,” he said. “The city fought tooth and nail for three-plus years.” But in 2015, Palmdale gave up the fight and agreed to switch to district elections, and the courts granted Shenkman’s firm a $4.6 million settlement to cover his firm’s expenses for the trial.