The battle over voting rights in Fullerton flared again Tuesday night, as City Council members decided to stick with a voting district map backed by business leaders instead of one supported by a coalition of local residents.
The public hearing, was required by a judge who found the council had improperly approved the business-backed map, brought out dozens of people, including local officials, business owners and activists.
Among those in the crowd was a group of over 50 wearing shirts and carrying signs in support of the residents-backed map, known as 2B, which was the result of months of public input sessions. Some of their shirts read, “Right 2B heard.”
Sharon Quirk-Silva, a former Fullerton mayor and state assemblywoman, supported 2B and said every resident should be alarmed at a recent court ruling that found the city wrongfully sidestepped public input requirements in order to approve the business-backed map, known as 8A, which splits downtown among five voting districts.
“This flawed process has rightfully left many feeling their rights have been diluted by those supporting map 8A in favor of protecting narrow special interests,” said Quirk-Silva, who’s now running for her former Assembly seat.
Meanwhile, business advocates argued that map 8A was superior because it allows everyone in Fullerton to have a stake in the downtown area, which they describe as the hub of the city.
“Downtown Fullerton is the gathering place for the entire city. Every district in map 8A meets in the heart of our community, our downtown,” said Derek Kirk of the North Orange County Chamber of Commerce, reading aloud a letter from the chamber’s board.
“The residents who live in downtown are a diverse, multiethnic group. Not one homogenous community of interest.”
The move towards district-based voting stems from a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed by attorney Kevin Shenkman on behalf of resident Kitty Jaramillo, and another by the American Civil Liberties Union and Asian Americans Advancing Justice on behalf of resident Jonathon Paik. The suits alleged that the current at-large election system disenfranchises Asian and Latino voters.
The city is 22.8 percent Asian and 34.4 percent Latino, according to the 2010 Census, for a total of 57 percent of the city. All five council members are white and an Asian hasn’t sat on the council since 2000.
The settlement of that case required a public input process to advise on a districts map and for a ballot referendum this November for voters to decide on whether to implement district elections.
That public input process, which involved months of community meetings, led to map 2B emerging with support from Asian and Latino residents.
Map 2B was authored by Jeanette Vazquez, a Fullerton resident and Anaheim school teacher, and recommended by the demographer hired by the city for the districting effort, David Ely of Compass Demographics, at the May public hearing when the original version of 8A was introduced.
But after the rounds of community meetings were finished, a new map emerged – map 8, which was later modified to 8A – that was drawn by a downtown business owner, Jeremy Popoff, who owns the Slidebar restaurant.
Council members then chose map 8A, which was backed by business groups, as the official districts map at their June 7 meeting. This prompted Shenkman to file a court motion alleging that the city violated the settlement agreement, which required two public hearings before the final map is approved.
There was one public hearing for map 8 in May and one hearing for the revised version, 8A, in June.
Superior Court Judge James Crandall agreed, ruling that the 8A approval violated the public hearing portion of the settlement agreement. He found that it only had been through one public hearing, as opposed to the two hearings mandated in the settlement.
That forced the council to hold Tuesday’s public hearing on which map to choose.
In his ruling, Crandall also expressed concern about the business-backed map itself, suggesting it would weaken the voice of downtown residents by splitting them between five districts and may violate a settlement requirement that requires communities of interest – like downtown – be kept in one district.
Five districts in downtown “is a little severe,” Crandall said.
(Click here to read Crandall’s full court order.)
At Tuesday’s hearing, supporters of 8A argued, among other things, that it gives priority to downtown businesses.
“I think the real reason that map 8A is superior … is because I think it gives a priority to our downtown central business district,” said Planning Commissioner Larry Bennett.
“I know the map’s been maligned as the ‘bar owners’ map’, but the reality is all of our business community primarily resides in the downtown corridor there.”
There were also claims that any map besides 8A would lead to the “balkanization” of the city.
The claim that it’s vital to have all districts meet in downtown irked the 2B supporters. They said that too much priority was being given to the downtown businesses.
“We’ve talked to thousands of residents at this point. And the sentiment is clear, we need a council that reflects all of our communities and not just a few,” said resident and council candidate Jonathan Mansoori.
Vazquez said 2B not only keeps downtown residents together, but it strengthens their voice.
Other residents were concerned that 8A was still being considered, especially after Crandall’s ruling.
“It is unclear how the division of the downtown area of the city gives appropriate consideration to this [communities of interest] principle. If anything, division of the downtown area among the five districts in Map 8A does not honor the contiguity of the population living there, and their shared interests in that area,” Crandall’s order reads.
Supporters of map 2B also held up a banner with letters of support written by residents. Paik, one of the voting rights lawsuit plaintiffs, delivered 325 letters of support to the city and said there was over 675 signatures on the 2B banner.
The majority of the council was unflinching from their original stance about the business-backed map. They argued that the voting populations between the two maps aren’t that different and that the downtown area is the central hub of Fullerton.
“I supported map 8A last time and I have heard all of the arguments presented to me tonight and see no reason to change that decision,” said Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald.
“When I look at why I support map 8A, it has nothing to do with the businesses downtown and making sure that they have power. It has to do with making sure how our city is unified.”
The total voter population in districts is not significantly different between the two maps. But map 2B gives Asians a majority, where map 8A would give them a plurality. A group has a majority if it makes up more than 50 percent of a district; it has a plurality if its residents outnumber other groups in the district. Latinos maintain a plurality in both maps.
“I found the downtown somewhat difficult to define,” said Councilman Doug Chaffee. “I believe there’s no real continuity throughout it. It doesn’t really, in my mind, constitute a community of interest. So I have no problem splitting it up.”
The council voted unanimously to stick with the business-backed map.
A review of campaign finance filings shows that Fitzgerald has been the beneficiary of several downtown business owners. That includes Popoff, whose restaurant gave $1,000 to Fitzgerald’s election campaign last year.
Shenkman said he and his clients will be assessing their next steps. He and the city are slated to return back to court on Monday for a status conference to update the judge about what happened.
In a phone interview, Quirk-Silva said that while she supports downtown businesses, they already have a powerful voice in City Hall.
“This is politics at its ugliest,” she said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC contributing writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.