An Orange County Superior Court Judge Tuesday morning set a March 17 trial date for a lawsuit alleging Anaheim's at large City Council elections violate the California Voting Rights Act.
The American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, filed on behalf of Latino activists, argues that the city's at large council elections disenfranchise Latino voters by giving people in wealthy and mostly white neighborhoods more voting power than Latinos, who constitute 53 percent of the city's residents.
As a result, the suit asserts, the City Council's all-white and relatively affluent members steer more city resources to wealthier communities at the expense of poorer Latino communities.
News of the trial comes after another judge ruled that Palmdale, which is 54.4% Latino, violates the state Voting Rights Act with its at large election system by preventing blacks and Latinos from electing the council candidates of their choice.
Jose Moreno, president of the Latino grass-roots group Los Amigos of Orange County and a plaintiff in the case, said he was “very happy” about the outcome. “We have our day in court,” Moreno said. “Glad to see the court system sees that the city has delayed enough.”
The court date was a long time in coming for a suit that was first filed in June 2012. Previously, Judge Franz E. Miller had granted a city request to delay the case so that the city's legislative process could be given the chance to devise with a new system that could remedy the ACLU complaint.
The council then convened a citizens advisory committee to recommend changes to the electoral system.
From the start, the committee was split between appointees by Mayor Tom Tait and former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway, who favor the council-districts system, and those appointed by the then council majority of Kris Murray, Gail Eastman and former Councilman Harry Sidhu, who want to keep elections as they are.
After several months of study, the committee recommended that the question of whether council members should be elected only by residents of their districts — the system favored by Latino activists because it would transfer electoral power to less affluent neighborhoods — should be put to a citywide vote. However, members from the anti-districts committee bloc claimed the other side had hijacked the process.
Opponents of district elections argued that the system will Balkanize the council and lead to a battle over city resources. They asserted that the at large election system actually grants residents, no matter who they are, more representation that elections by district, because residents elect every council member.
The council ultimately rejected the committee's official recommendation and approved instead residency-based districts, under which council candidates would be required to live in certain areas of the city but still be elected at large.
Voters in the June 2014 primary will decide whether to make the residency requirement part of the city charter and whether the current five-member council should be expanded to six council members and a mayor.
Marguerite Mary Leoni, an attorney from Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni who represented the city in the hearing, argued that case should be delayed again until after June so the new system could be given a chance to prove itself.
“This is a fundamental change, and it will be driven by the population of the city,” Leoni said.
ACLU attorneys argued that the residency requirements would still disenfranchise Latino voters because candidates would still be elected by the wealthier neighborhoods.
After hearing the arguments, Miller decided to set a 10-day trial.
Attorneys representing the city objected to having a trial in February or March, saying that they had another trial to deal with at that time. They asked for a later trial date.
“I'm confident you have the resources to keep all the balls in the air,” Miller replied.
There had been worry from activists that the city would successfully delay the case until after the 2014 general election, but ACLU attorney Robert Rubin said that a March trial should allow enough time to institute district elections by then.
The city has also filed a series of motions that are scheduled to be heard by Miller on Oct. 1. The motions include a judgment on the pleadings, a motion to stay the case, a motion to dismiss the case and a motion to bifurcate or separate the case.