The Lake Forest City Council has narrowed its potential district maps to five, as part of the city’s transition from an at-large voting system to district-based elections in 2018.

“For too long, our city’s Latino residents have not had a seat at the table in making the important decisions that affect Lake Forest,” resident Danielle Serbin said during public comment.

The switch to district elections comes after attorney Kevin Shenkman, of the Malibu-based firm Shenkman & Hughes, sent a letter in April that warned the city’s at-large system disenfranchises Hispanic voters and isn’t in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act.

According to 2017 demographics data on the city’s website, the Lake Forest population is nearly 84,000, and 66 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian and 2 percent black.

Since 2015, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Fullerton and Buena Park have moved to district elections after critics said districts were needed so large groups of minorities, including Hispanics, had a chance to win council seats.

Santa Ana narrowly rejected the move to district elections on a split vote in January and now is facing a threat to abandon their at large voting system or face legal action.

Starting in 2015, Shenkman represented a Fullerton resident, while the ACLU represented another resident, which pushed the city to district elections that will start next year.

The Lake Forest City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to move forward with maps 109, 110, 115 and 116, along with a suggested map from Councilman Andrew Hamilton, who described sectioning the districts off in “fingers,” but didn’t provide more context. Hamilton also wants the southern stretch of the city along the 5 freeway to be one district. All maps keep the southeast Hispanic population in a district together.

Hamilton’s proposed map will be drawn by demographer Justin Levitt, vice president of the city’s contractor, Glendale-based National Demographics Corporation.

Shenkman, in a Wednesday phone interview, questioned the validity of maps drawn by National Demographics for other cities, and said he thinks cities that use them “are all going to end up in litigation at some point.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Levitt presented a map in which each district contained one incumbent. Under questioning from council members, he said the courts have deemed it acceptable, so long as district maps aren’t used to remove an incumbent.

Shenkman disagreed.

“National Demographics Corp is getting paid a lot more than me and they get the business if they say that kind of stuff,” Shenkman said.

Levitt maintained “it is a balanced map… it’s under the 10 percent standard,” he said, referring to a requirement that population totals in each district not deviate more than 10 percent from each other.

Mayor Pro Tem Leah Basile said if cities can’t gerrymander maps to remove incumbents, then the opposite should apply as well. “I think it just defies the whole purpose of what we’re doing here today.”

The council threw out the incumbent map after discussion.

Meanwhile, there was some concern voiced by the council and public about splitting up the Lake Forest 2 community, which surrounds the lake between Bake Parkway and Lake Forest Drive and is home to a sailing club.

“These districts aren’t set in stone … they will be changed.” Basile said, referring to the 2020 census that will require redistricting once again. “Hang in there.”

The move to district elections still faced criticism from some on the dais.

Mayor Scott Voigts said the move will divide the city, while Hamilton pushed, in a separate failed motion, for the city to settle with Shenkman and publish a demographic study that argues there’s no racially polarized voting in the city.

“There’s really only one ambulance chaser right now in this district election fight, so I think we should settle for $30,000 … all this money we’re going to spend on district elections right now is a lot more money than that,” Hamilton said. “I think the probability of us getting sued in the future is very low.”

Additionally, the settlement would have barred Shenkman from representing any clients in Lake Forest for similar lawsuits.

Hamilton also said the city should publish the study, which is currently exempt from public disclosure under attorney-client privilege, because it concludes there’s no racially polarized voting.

“That would shoo lawsuits away because it shows that we don’t have racial bias,” Hamilton said, who made a similar failed motion at the Sept. 5 meeting.  

City Attorney Mal Richardson warned that while the demographer concluded there wasn’t any racially polarized voting, a case can still be made in court.

“However, no city has litigated this all the way through,” Richardson said, adding he’s not sure how the court would rule.

Shenkman took issue with Hamilton’s suggestion and said regardless of what the demographic study says, the city would still be open for lawsuits.

“It’s not about paying me. This guy’s nuts,” Shenkman said. “Almost six years we’ve been doing these types of cases. There’s been plenty of opportunities to make a lot of money —  to let the city continue to dilute the minority vote.”

Shenkman said the firm would never agree to a settlement if the city were still in violation of the Voting Rights Act. 

“We’ve never done it and we won’t do it,” Shenkman said.

Hamilton’s motion failed 1-3-1. Councilmen Dwight Robinson and Jim Gardner, along with Basile voted no. Voigts abstained.

There will be two more public hearings on the district maps Nov. 7 and Dec. 5.

In Shenkman’s April letter sent to Lake Forest, he claims that 2016 council candidate Francisco Barajas received significant votes from the Hispanic voters, but lost.

“In fact, as a result of this reacially polarized voting, Lake Forest appears to have not had any Latino council members in its recent history,” Shenkman wrote.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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