Windsor Town Council delays making switch to district-based voting

Despite a legal threat, Windsor Town Council is not ready to commit to changing how voters elect council members.

The council on Wednesday decided to delay for 90 days a final decision on the matter, which gives them breathing room before a potential legal showdown with Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman.

The lawyer sent the town's leaders an Oct. 22 letter claiming Windsor's at-large elections have historically disenfranchised Latino voters and, consequently, no Latino representative ever has served on the Windsor council.

He wants the town to switch to voting by geographic districts, as Santa Rosa's City Council and school board did this year after his ultimatum. Previously, many other California cities have done the same thing.

But Windsor's leaders remain unwilling to budge — for now.

Since receiving the lawyer's demand, three current and former Windsor council members, including newly elected Esther Lemus, who took her seat on council Wednesday, have provided proof of their Latino heritage.

'I am not OK with our town being threatened, blackmailed or bullied by a law firm out of Malibu,' said Dominic Foppoli, who also was sworn in as mayor during the Wednesday council meeting. Foppoli's family is from Nicaragua.

Working with its attorney, Robin Donoghue, the council opted to use a legal tactic to block Shenkman from suing the town for at least 90 days.

To hold him off at least temporarily, council members invoked the state's safe harbor law so they can take more time to research whether they would be able to successfully refute Shenkman's claims.

The law gives cities statewide protection from a lawsuit for at least 90 days after accepting a resolution.

To be safe, council members had to vote 'yes' on Wednesday to agree to consider moving to district voting to avoid a lawsuit immediately from Shenkman.

If council members ultimately decide they have a strong enough counterargument, they have the option of rejecting Shenkman's demand to voluntarily change to district elections.

'We have our work cut out for us,' Council member Sam Salmon said.

Over 100 cities have received similar letters from the attorney blaming at-large elections for disenfranchising minority voters.

The 15 cities who opted to battle him in court all have lost. Santa Monica spent upwards of $10 million in legal fees in a failed legal contest.

Shenkman uses the 2001 California Voting Rights Act as a guide to target cities he thinks are violating the law.

Former Windsor mayor Bruce Okrepkie said he hasn't heard of one person in the town who is in favor of changing how council members are elected.

'People in the last week have approached me saying 'please fight for Windsor,' ' Okrepkie said. 'We have done things correctly as a community here, and this most recent election reflects that.'

There are 15,284 registered voters in Windsor and in the Nov. 6 election, 11,676 votes were cast, according to numbers shared by town clerk Maria De La O.

Her two sisters, both of whom helped Lemus during her campaign, said at-large elections didn't affect her road to victory.

Rachel Lemus Valenzuela, a 22-year resident of Windsor, said voting by geographic districts in larger cities makes sense and helps candidates from minority communities get elected.

But she doesn't understand why her town was targeted.

'I think the voting rights act is very good, but I think these lawyers miscalculated when it came to Windsor,' Lemus Valenzuela said. 'My sister is a person who came with the right experience and the at-large elections had nothing to do with her race.'

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