City of Moorpark Transitioning to District Based Elections

By Kevin Harris

The Moorpark City Council met Wednesday night during a “Special Meeting” to iron out further details of the city’s transition to district-based elections. It was the Council’s third (out of 5) such public hearings, as required under the California Voting Rights Act. 

Just like other California cities, Moorpark received a letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman, of Shenkman & Hughes Law Firm, in August, 2018, challenging the city’s current election method — called “at large” voting, saying it violates the CVRA. The attorney threatened lawsuits if the city refused to get into compliance. With “at large” elections, council members can live anywhere in their city, and are elected by the voters from the entire city, with a Mayor elected every two years. This “at large” method has been in place in Moorpark since the city was incorporated in 1983.

District-based elections differ in that the city is broken-up into separate districts, with each district electing its own council member. 

Like most other cities, Moorpark chose to comply rather than engage in a lengthy, expensive legal fight, considering the few cities that have fought, lost. The remaining issues for the Council are, which “plan” to adopt — splitting the city into 4 districts or 5, and which district map to use once that has been decided.

There is an important distinction between the 4-district and 5-district plans. With 4 districts, residents elect council members for their districts, and they elect the mayor for the city. With the 5-district plan, residents elect council members from their district as well, but they do not elect the mayor. The mayor is chosen from the council by council members on a rotating basis, with a new mayor chosen each year. 

City Attorney Kevin Ennis proposed that the Council determine which plan they will adopt as the first order of business for the meeting (4 vs 5 districts), after hearing comments from the public and input from city staff, then determining which map to use, at the next meeting if necessary. The Council received 24 different maps for consideration. 

Council Member Roseann Mikos, however, was uncomfortable with the seemingly rushed schedule. “”There isn’t a stupid way to think about this… I haven’t made up my mind yet, and I don’t want to make up my mind tonight (on whether they go with 4 or 5 districts). I want to hear from all of you,” she said, referring to the public in attendance. 

After significant debate among the council about how the meeting would be structured, it was finally decided to go with Ennis’ suggestion, and decide on how many districts the city would settle on first. 

PUBLIC COMMENT

Speakers from the audience were numerous. Most gave their opinions on whether 4 or 5 districts made the most sense, while some discussed which maps they favored. Each speaker was given three minutes, and in all, the public comment period went on for more than an hour and a half. Following is a sampling of some of those speakers:

Harvey Placks:  Supports 4 districts. Placks, a 41-year resident, was a candidate for the city’s very first city council. “I’m opposed to splitting the city… It’s unfortunate that the government decided to take a little city of 38 thousand people and break us up into 4 or 5 districts. We have a community that works together… I think what we’re doing to this community is separating it.”

Harvey Placks

Richard Bakalter:  Supports 4 districts. A 14-year resident, Bakalter is a previous Chair of the Moorpark Chamber of Commerce. He said he does not like the idea of a different mayor every year, which the 5-district plan would bring. 

Monica (last name unclear):  Supports 5 districts. A resident since 1990, said she supports 5 districts because it puts all five council members (including the mayor) “on equal footing.” 

Bruce Rugos:  Supports 4 districts. A 32-year resident. “I believe our mayor should be uniquely elected. We’ve seen how a rotating mayor works in cities such as Ventura and Thousand Oaks, and in many cases it hasn’t worked well.” Rugos warned specifically about politics and infighting eventually dividing a unified city council. 

Dr. David Lopez Lee:  Supports 5 districts. “Of the two (districting plans being considered), the 5-district plan is numerically more likely to elect a person from a protected class.” He also suggested that a secondary benefit of 5 districts is that a person from a “protected class” would be more likely to end up as mayor at any given time, and that both benefits are protections from potential CVRA lawsuits. 

Dr. David Lopez Lee

Mark Van Dam:  Supports 4 districts. Former Moorpark City Council Member. “The decision of whether to go to 4 or 5 districts is important. One will retain an elected mayor, and one will eliminate an elected mayor. Having an elected mayor was voted on over two decades ago by the citizens of Moorpark. This decision has served us well… The mayor is the spokesperson for the entire city, not just one district.” 

City Council Responses

Council members responded to public comments with their own comments, concerns or questions, followed by a motion and vote. First to volunteer was the verbally generous Council Member Roseann Mikos. 

Mikos:  “I don’t think any districts should be isolated away from all business in our town… I would like that to be one of our guiding principles. I don’t think it needs to be whether you’re square or rectangle, I think they (the districts) need to be communities of interest.” She also opined that they should not use where a council member lives as a principle for districting, and that the council should not make the final decision regarding 4 or 5 districts tonight, in order to give the council and residents more time to consider the facts. 

Council Member David Pollock:  Supports 4 districts. “As we divide into districts and possible balkanization of the council, it’s important for the future that we have at least one person on the council that has the citywide perspective (an elected mayor). Especially someone that has a tie-breaking vote. 

Mayor Janice S. Parvin:  Supports 4 districts. “With 4 districts and an elected mayor, a voter will have an opportunity to vote for two candidates; one for mayor, and one within their district. By moving to 5 districts, a voter gets one choice.” 

Mayor Janice S. Parvin

Council Member Chris Energren:  Supports 4 districts. “I think an elected mayor is very important. He or she is the point person, the figurehead of the city. Not all council members are good mayors… I think this rotating mayor thing just seems like kindergarten sports.” 

Council Member Ken Simons also supports four districts, and discussed why having a rotating mayor creates a disadvantage for the city verses an elected mayor. 

Mayor Parvin then made a motion to go to a 4-district plan, and a council vote was taken. The motion passed, 4-1, with Council Member Roseann Mikos abstaining. 

The next formal special meeting (4th of 5) will be held on February 6, 2019, to decide which 4-district map to use, then the 5th and final meeting is scheduled for March 6, 2019, where an official ordinance is to be adopted. The official deadline for the changeover to take place has been extended until April, 2019.

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also a Realtor and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks. 


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