A highly charged political fight over Latino representation in Anaheim is set for another round at Tuesday night's City Council meeting after Councilwoman Gail Eastman requested another discussion of a potential citywide vote to change the council's electoral system to district elections.
Eastman had previously joined a majority vote that rejected the district elections model, instead opting to put before voters a system in which candidates would have to live in the districts they represent but would still be elected at large.
The ongoing issue stems from a lawsuit filed by Latino activists and the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that the city's at large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act, which requires adequate representation for certain minorities. Anaheim is 54 percent Latino, but its five-member council is all white and hail from middle class or affluent neighborhoods.
The activists say the only way Latinos would be adequately represented on the City Council is through election by districts, whereby residents could vote only for council candidates running in their districts. The model approved by the council majority last month, which is the same model used in Santa Ana, is a council districts system in name only and would not change the current dynamic, activists said.
But now it aqppears there might be another vote on the issue after Eastman said she needed additional “brain time” to review documents related to the lawsuit.
Bringing back the contentious issue has already spurred a political showdown. Jose Moreno, a Latino leader and plaintiff in the lawsuit, has called out both Councilman Jordan Brandman — who voted for district elections — for not delivering on a promise to advocate for district elections and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez for vouching that Brandman would keep his word.
And while activists said they hope Eastman has had a change of heart, they also expressed suspicion that the council majority will place competing measures — one for district elections, another for the Santa Ana-style residency requirement — on the ballot to confuse voters and ensure that district elections fail.
Supporters of the council majority said that both systems are “council districts” options with the residency requirement being a fair compromise. But those in favor of district elections argued that the residency requirement is a “fake districts” decoy, because council members would still be elected at large. That would divert votes away from a real district elections model, they said.
“You may get some Latino candidates elected, but it won't be Latinos that elect them,” Moreno said about the residency requirement alternative.
The council is scheduled Tuesday to vote on approving both charter amendment ballot measures in separate votes.
If Eastman decides to back district elections over the residency requirement, she could be the swing vote on transforming an at large council electoral system that is 150 years old.
Moreno, president of the grassroots Latino group Los Amigos of Orange County, said he found it odd that Eastman would ask for more time to consider district elections when activists have been pressing the issue for 15 months.
“It's just really curious to me,” Moreno said. “I expect more of our elected officials.”
Supporters of district elections also speculated that adding both options to the ballot would not only split the vote but also prolong the lawsuit. A Superior Court judge has set a July 9 hearing to decide whether the city's legislative process succeeded in addressing the issues raised in the case.
“If you place district elections on the ballot and you give people that option, it alleviates the responsibility per se of the city,” said former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway. “They want to split the vote, and that's how they'll get what they ultimately want.”
Eastman has acknowledged that multiple ballot options would confuse the voters. “The more issues we put on the ballot, the more people will get confused," The Orange County Register quoted her as saying.
Eastman said in a later interview with Voice of OC that she doesn't actually hold that opinion and was merely quoting information provided to her by a source whom she could not recall.
“It's one of those things where you get a lot of opinions and you need to consider them all. It's obviously one opinion that's out there,” Eastman said. “I need to evaluate for myself how valid I think that is.”
Eastman dismissed activists' suspicions about the council majority's intentions, saying that her only concern is making a well-informed decision. Voters "expect me to have the time, to put in the time, to know all the facts and to make a good decision for them,” Eastman said. “I feel that is a very strong responsibility.”
Meanwhile, Moreno has criticized Brandman and Sanchez, both Democrats, for what he said are broken promises to the Latino group.
Brandman, escorted by Sanchez, visited Los Amigos at one of the group's breakfast meetings during his council campaign last fall in a bid to shore up support. It was a tense meeting, as Brandman and the Latino group had previously had a falling out over what the Los Amigos leaders said were broken promises by Brandman while he was a school district trustee.
Sanchez and Moreno at the meeting secured a commitment from Brandman that he would support district elections through multiple avenues, including pushing from the first council meeting to settle the lawsuit. He also committed to calling for a living wage ordinance, something he hasn't yet asked to place on a council agenda.
“What we want to hear from you is that you're not going to sit on your hands,” Sanchez said at the meeting. “That you're going to start from day one, moving forward to get us to district elections.”
“Yes,” Brandman replied.
Brandman did place a discussion of the lawsuit on a council agenda, but the discussion took place behind closed doors. The lawsuit, which has so far cost taxpayers more than $500,000, remains unsettled.
Brandman voted for district elections when the issue came up at the public meeting, but he said little in defense of the option. That left Mayor Tom Tait, who has strongly advocated district elections, alone to argue for the electoral change.
Brandman also joined the four-member majority against Tait in voting for the residency requirement model that supporters of district elections have described as a disingenuous ploy.
“Just voting for something doesn't mean you advocate for it. … I'm waiting to see when Loretta Sanchez is going to weigh in, because Jordan Brandman broke his promise to her, the highest ranking Democrat in Orange County,” Moreno said, adding that Brandman's promise was on Sanchez's “dime” or borrowed trust.
Brandman did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Sanchez said that Brandman did not break his promise, because he did lobby hard for district elections. The advocacy just couldn't be observed, Sanchez said, because it was behind the scenes.
“The reality is, if you're a good politician, you're probably getting your work done in a private setting, one on one, trying to get people to move,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez described Brandman as having gone above and beyond the commitments he made to Los Amigos by pushing for Spanish translation services at council meetings and a council resolution supporting federal immigration reform.
“I think all in all his record has been pretty good,” Sanchez said.