Anaheim Debates Whether to Create City Council Districts

Dozens of residents packed Anaheim City Hall Wednesday night to express their support for moving to a council district electoral system, with many complaining that Latinos in poor neighborhoods aren't adequately represented on the City Council.

“In the political arena, I have felt really excluded,” said Martin Lopez, a city resident and Latino activist.

Wednesday's special meeting was in response to a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union and local activists that accuses the city of violating the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, a law that mandates better representation for minorities.

Anaheim is 54 percent Latino, yet none of the sitting council members are Latino, an indication that the city's largest group of residents isn't represented, activists assert. The ACLU and activists say the cause of the inequity is Anaheim's at-large electoral system, meaning there are no requirements that council candidates live in certain neighborhoods.

Four of the five sitting council members reside in Anaheim Hills, the city's affluent eastern quarter. The lawsuit demands that the city implement council districts, a system where residents in a district would vote to elect only that district's representative.

Not everyone agreed that council districts are a good solution to the problem of underrepresentation for Latinos, or even that a problem exists. Disagreement followed ethnic lines, with white residents speaking against making any changes to the electoral system.

Most of those attending were Latinos in favor of council districts. Some carried hand mirrors with stickers that declared “We Are Anaheim.”

“I'm offended that the basis of this suit is this city is racist. It is not racist,” said Mitch Caldwell, president of the Anaheim Neighborhood Association, a political action committee that has supported council members in their campaigns.

Some of the tension between the groups involved Disneyland, the mega resort that is credited by some for generating the tax revenue needed to fund city services. Many poorer residents contend that the resort wields undue influence and manages to steer city services to itself at the expense of residents.

William Dennis Fitzgerald, a frequent council and Disney critic, said that Disney would likely fight implementing council districts. “That is something that Disney will not allow,” Fitzgerald said as many meeting attendees applauded in agreement.

Craig Farrow, a retired city police sergeant and an advisory committee member for Support Our Anaheim Resort, an advocacy group heavily funded by Disney, defended the resort as being vital to the city.

“Anaheim would not be what it is today without Disney,” Farrow said.

A panel of experts on the Voting Rights Act presented facts about the law and fielded questions from council members and residents. Two of the panelists, civil rights litigator Robert Rubin and attorney Jose Paz, who defended Compton in a Voting Rights Act lawsuit, debated some of the legal arguments surrounding the issue.

Ethnic groups tend to vote in blocks, Rubin said, which can end up barring minorities from having elected representatives. At-large elections also make candidates much more reliant on money to get their message across, Rubin said. In a district, a candidate could campaign effectively by just by walking the neighborhoods, he said.

“We all know how expensive it is to run in Anaheim,” said 26-year-old Daniel Hernandez, a West Anaheim resident. “I've never seen you guys knock on my door. All I get are mailers.”

Paz, meanwhile, argued that the inability to elect a candidate could be attributed to low voter turnout. If Latinos don't show up to vote, Paz said, then it can't be argued that they have been shut out of the political system. “All one has to do is show up to the polls,” he said.

Some Latino residents and activists argue that underrepresentation has led to an uneven distribution of resources. Anaheim Hills has more parks, libraries, fire stations and community centers per 50,000 residents than other parts of the city, according to a report from Orange County Communities for Responsible Development, which conducts policy research and civic activism.

At the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Lorri Galloway said that her father is full Latino, so news reports stating that there are no Latino council members are wrong. “I am no less Latino than Barack Obama is black,” she said.

For the purposes of the voting rights act, however, that may not be the case. Galloway, who is considered a stalwart champion of the city's poor neighborhoods, said in a previous interview that her father is Spanish. Spaniards are not Latino representatives, Rubin said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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