The filing of a lawsuit that challenges Santa Monica’s current election system prompted an abrupt halt in negotiations to split the local school district and led to the resignation of one of Malibu’s representatives in the talks.

Kevin Shenkman confirmed Monday that he was stepping down from his position as a member of Malibu’s negotiating team as activists in that city continue fighting for the creation of a Malibu-only school district.

Shenkman will continue representing plaintiffs in the suit, which is seeking to establish district-based elections for Santa Monica City Council seats. He said the suit is not meant to impact how seats on the local Board of Education are filled.

Shenkman, a Malibu-based lawyer who has been successful in several voting rights cases in the region, said he felt compelled to give up his spot on the separation negotiations committee when he heard that Santa Monica’s representatives were putting talks on hold due to the filing of the suit.

“While I believe that I am uniquely qualified to serve on that committee … the retaliatory actions by the Santa Monica negotiators have caused my involvement to become a distraction to the real issues that the committee is charged with resolving,” Shenkman wrote in a letter.

The committee was tasked by the school board to resolve financial and other obstacles to separation, a longtime goal of Malibu parent activists. Teams representing Santa Monica and Malibu were chosen in January.

Meanwhile, the board of directors of the pro-separation Advocates for Malibu Public Schools group announced Sunday that it was withdrawing its organization as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

AMPS officials said in a press release that they “acted hastily” in joining the elections lawsuit and “did not properly consult” with the school board, the city councils of Santa Monica and Malibu and the members of the two SMMUSD negotiating teams.

“AMPS continues to believe in the importance of local governance and control for Santa Monica and Malibu schools, regrets the distraction created by its original decision to join the lawsuit, and looks forward to the resumption of negotiations to create a Malibu Unified School District — a solution it believes will serve far better the interests of both the Santa Monica and Malibu communities,” reads the press release.

On April 14, three days after the elections lawsuit was filed, the school district issued a press release stating that Santa Monica’s negotiators — Tom Larmore, Paul Silvern and Debbie Mulvaney — had requested a pause in the talks. Their stance was supported by Superintendent Sandra Lyon and school board president Laurie Lieberman.

“The full seven-member Board of Education acted in good faith to further the investigation of the feasibility of a separate Malibu Unified School District and this legal action could jeopardize our ability to move forward in a productive manner,” Lieberman said in the release. We are extremely disappointed that our efforts in the past few months to address the interest of the Malibu community to create its own district have been interrupted by this new development.”

The press release sparked tension towards the end of the board meeting, when board members Craig Foster and Oscar de la Torre criticized the district for its actions. Foster is the entity’s only Malibu representative. De la Torre’s wife is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Larmore said the lawsuit was filed “completely without warning” and added that the negotiators representing Santa Monica in separation talks should have been informed.

De la Torre said the negotiators should have known about Shenkman’s involvement in the elections challenge because he threatened to file the lawsuit in December.

jeff@www.smdp.com