Anaheim City Council Delays Action on Council Districts

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Residents attending an Anaheim City Council meeting to urge the council to support a plan that would require council members to live in the districts they represent. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Any doubts that last month's police shootings in Anaheim and the unrest that followed have shaken up the city's political establishment should have been put to rest Wednesday, when business-backed City Council candidate Jordan Brandman stood up at a special meeting of the Anaheim City Council and voiced his support for a council district form of government.

“It is critical to have fair and equal representation on the council,” Brandman said during the meeting, which attracted hundreds to Anaheim High School's Cook Auditorium.

Brandman's statements follow Disneyland Resort President George Kalogridis’ recent endorsement of the proposed change.

The council majority's ultimate action Wednesday — supported by both Brandman and Disney — makes it unlikely that the weeks of sometimes violent protest and the lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union will force any change soon.

After hearing from many who want the council districts issue put on the November ballot, the council majority — Kris Murray, Harry Sidhu and Gail Eastman — decided to table the issue and back a plan put forth by Murray that would keep it the issue off the ballot for nearly two years.

Many at Wednesday's meeting denounced that plan as a stalling tactic and said it showed that the council majority was not listening to the community.

“This council does not listen, period,” Eric Altman, executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, told a group of supporters after the meeting.

A group of activists and the ACLU have sued the city, arguing that the at-large council elections violate the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, because Latinos, who constitute more than half of the city’s population, can’t elect the council candidates of their choice.

Four of the five current council members live in Anaheim Hills, the affluent eastern quarter of the city. Councilwoman Lorri Galloway, who's ancestry is half Spanish and half Filipina, claims Latina heritage.

The activists and the ACLU have demanded that the city move to a system of electing council members by districts, whereby residents would vote only for the council member from their neighborhoods. Supporters have said this would ensure fair representation, because council members would then understand the day-to-day living conditions of the city’s working-class areas.

Focus on the divide between Anaheim Hills and the “flatlands” was sharpened after police shot and killed two young Latino men last month. Protests of the shootings turned into a downtown riot after protesters where denied admittance to a July 24 City Council meeting.

Many Latinos have connected the police shootings and poverty to their community’s disenfranchisement under the city’s current political system. While city leaders nurture the resort district, the community has not gotten quality jobs and city services in return, they argue.

“We have been forgotten by the city,” said 20-year-old Marisol Ramirez, who grew up in the neighborhood at the intersection of North Brookhurst Street and Crescent Avenue. “We’re put into a system that is doomed to fail us.”

Mayor Tom Tait originally put the issue of council districts on the July 24 council agenda, but the violence outside City Hall forced an early adjournment of the meeting. Tait then called this week’s special meeting in order to meet the November ballot’s Friday deadline and to let the residents have a venue to address their government.

Tait had presented a proposal that would have created four council districts, but after activists demanded eight districts, Tait had a new proposal created that called for six districts, saying that the new measure complies with state law.

“I think it’s good government,” Tait said. “I believe the time has come in Anaheim.”

Members of the council majority said that the shifting proposal and its difference from what the activists demanded is evidence that the proposal needed better study before allowing residents to vote.

“Clearly there is still disagreement about the number we should use,” Murray said during Wednesday's meeting.

Activists shouted back that they would be happy with six districts.

Council members Harry Sidhu and Gail Eastman said that they wanted to make sure all communities in the city have a chance to voice their opinions on the move. Sidhu noted that the city has substantial Arab and Asian populations.

The activists countered that their coalition included representatives from a broad swath of city residents, including those from the Muslim community.

Eastman said she supports the move to council districts, a sharp departure from previous comments she made about the idea. She wrote in a post to a neighborhood message board that the downtown riot was a “victory with no shots fired,” in part because the violence postponed the council’s consideration of the proposal.

Under Murray’s study plan, the council could place a vetted districts option on the June 2014 primary election ballot and have districts in place by that year’s general election. It is a similar implementation timeline to Tait’s plan, which calls for a transition to begin by December 2013, according to a city staff report.

One big difference under Murray’s proposal is that residents would not vote on creating districts for almost two years. Also, the citizens review committee would review a range of council election options, possibly recommending one not based on council districts.

Each council member would appoint two people from different ethnic and geographic backgrounds to the 10-member citizens review committee. Galloway pointed out that this would allow the council majority to stack the committee.

“This way will be biased … and biased toward an agenda that I don’t think the majority of these people [activists] want.”

Tait’s proposal would have had a seven-member commission appointed by three retired Superior Court judges.

“I think the most direct and simple way to do this is to ask the people,” Tait said.

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly lumped Anaheim City Council candidate Jordan Brandman in with those who want to see the council-districts issue on the November ballot. Brandman is not currently advocating a ballot issue. We regret the error.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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