Anaheim Committee Deadlocks on Plan for Council Districts

The Anaheim committee charged with studying whether to change the City Council electoral system from an at-large format to council districts could not reach consensus on that issue Thursday and indicated it will recommend the question go before voters.

Committee members did, however, agree on increasing the size of the City Council. They recommend changing the five-member council to either seven seats or nine seats. Under both recommendations, one seat would be reserved for the mayor.

The 10 voting members of the Citizens Advisory Committee are scheduled to consider final approval of the recommendations at its May 9 meeting. It is then up to the City Council to decide on whether to implement the committee's proposals.

The proposal to put the question of at-large or district elections to a citywide vote was first offered by Mayor Tom Tait last August before the committee was formed. The council majority at the time, however, voted against Tait's proposal, arguing that the city's electoral system needed to be studied by an advisory committee in order to make an informed decision.

Now in many respects, the City Council is back to where it started on the issue.

How council members react to the committee's conclusions could have major implications for an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit on behalf of Latino activists, who alleged that the city's at-large council election system violates the California Voting Rights Act, which requires adequate representation for minorities.

The city's population is 54 percent Latino, but few council members in the city's history have been Latino. Currently, all five council members are non-Latino and live in the affluent neighborhoods of Anaheim Hills or the Colony District. The ACLU proposes a switch to a council districts system, whereby residents would elect only the representative in their districts.

Some residents in the city's working-class neighborhoods have complained that the more affluent areas have more amenities such as parks, community centers and libraries and have blamed their lack of representation on the council for the inequity. They have asserted that a council districts system would ensure representation and therefore equal distribution of city resources.

Opponents of council districts have argued that the system would create a dysfunctional council because council members would constantly be warring to steer resources toward their districts.

Last week, Orange County Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller granted a city motion to have activity on the case postponed until July 9 so the committee could finish its work. Miller said that the city should be allowed to first attempt a solution to the problem raised in the lawsuit via a legislative process.

Supporters of council districts have expressed suspicion that forming the committee was merely a tactic by the council majority to delay the ACLU lawsuit for as long as possible so that even if the lawsuit is ultimately successful, council districts wouldn't be formed in time for the 2014 general election.

After seven months of deliberations, testimony from experts, comments from dozens residents and thousands of dollars in city funds spent on the committee, it was clear that few committee members, if any, had changed opinions on the council districts issue since being appointed.

The views of the committee members since the beginning have conformed to the 3-2 council split on the issue.

Tait and former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway both favor council districts and so have their committee appointees.  Committee members appointed by the previous council majority — Kris Murray, Gail Eastman and Harry Sidhu — opposed council districts even before they were appointed.

All of the appointees of the current and previous council majorities ultimately opposed council districts, with the exception of Sidhu-appointee Vic Real, and his defection caused the 5-5 deadlock.

At one point, committee members opposed to districts proposed a hybrid system whereby some council members would be elected by districts and others at-large. However, that idea quickly lost support.

Committee members opposed to districts argued that the ACLU's reasoning for council districts is rooted in racism, wouldn't solve the problems of equitable distribution of city resources and could raise other problems, such as increasing the likelihood of corruption.

The ACLU lawsuit is “all about skin color and very disturbing,” said Murray-appointee Sandy Day, who publicly opposed districts before being appointed to the committee.

Committee members supportive of districts argued that unless the city acts beforehand, the ACLU will likely win its lawsuit, leaving the setup of council districts in the hands of a judge. Among other arguments, they also cited the testimony so far from the public and an expert who favored districts.

“If we are to sit here and bring experts and invite public comments and Anaheim residents and ignore what we are all crying for, what we are all demanding for, and what we all need, we could have had this meeting behind closed doors,” said committee member Martin Lopez.

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

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