A citizens panel that spent months studying elections in Anaheim made a final recommendation Thursday night to put to voters the question of whether they city’s electoral system should be changed so members of the City Council are elected to serve individual districts rather than on an at-large basis.

The panel, called the Citizens Advisory Committee on Elections and Community Involvement, could not come to its own consensus on the controversial issue, but members did agree that the size of the City Council should increase from its current five members to seven or nine members, including a mayor elected at-large.

The City Council is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to implement the committee’s recommendations.

The recommendation is critical to a court battle over fair representation for the city’s Latinos, which constitute 54 percent of the city’s residents. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Latino activists challenging the city’s at-large council election system, arguing that Latinos have been largely unable to elect the candidates of their choice. All sitting council members are non-Latino and hail from the city’s affluent neighborhoods.

ACLU attorneys have proposed council districts as a solution to fairly represent Latinos. 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 month, Orange County Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller granted the city’s motion to postpone activity on the case 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.

The previous council majority — Kris Murray, Gail Eastman and Harry Sidhu — voted to form the committee in response to activists’ demand for a council-districts system and to a proposal by Mayor Tom Tait to put the question to a citywide vote. At the time, the majority said the issue needed to be studied further.

From the outset, supporters of council districts have expressed suspicion that the committee was a tactic by the council majority to delay the ACLU lawsuit for as long as possible so that even if it was successful, council districts wouldn’t be formed in time for the 2014 general election.

“I believe from the beginning this committee was put together as a ruse,” committee member Larry Larsen said in a speech at the end of the meeting to a chorus of cheers from attendees. Larsen added that the committee process was intended to “maintain the power structure and accommodate Disneyland, and not the city of Anaheim.”

After seven months of deliberations, testimony from experts, comments from dozens of residents and tens of thousands of dollars in city funds spent on the committee, 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 largely conformed to the former City Council’s 3-2 council split on the issue.

Appointees of Tait and former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway have been unwavering in their support of the change. Meanwhile, appointees of the current and previous council majorities ultimately opposed council districts, with the exception of Sidhu appointee Vic Real. It was his defection that caused last month’s 5-5 deadlock.

At one point during Thursday’s meeting, it seemed that some committee members had regretted the recommendation to put two election options — council districts or an at-large council — on the ballot.Committee member Sandy Day, a Murray appointee, had said she was confused during the process and wanted to add a third hybrid option to the ballot recommendation.

“Information, for me it takes a little time to process,” Day said. “It’s so amazing … What I felt happened, and what I watched later in the movie, is two different things.”

Under the proposed hybrid option, nominees would be selected by district in an election primary but then be elected at large in a follow-up election.

After a long discussion over whether to add the hybrid option, committee members deadlocked on amending the recommendations report, so the option was scrapped.

The decision to recommend that council districts be placed on the ballot drew applause from the audience, most of whom supported council districts.

Ron Bengochea, a resident opposed to districts, said that just because council members live in certain neighborhoods doesn’t mean they will effectively represent their residents.

“It doesn’t matter where you live, it doesn’t matter the number of districts,” Bengochea said. “It’s in the heart of the people [who are] going to represent you.”

Some of the 400 Honda Center employees who received termination notices this week attended the meeting also voiced support for council districts. They said that if the City Council had members who truly represented them, they would act to stop the layoffs at the arena. Although the city owns the Honda Center, a private company runs it.

“This is a wake-up call,” said Norma Vaca, a Honda Center bartender and city resident. She said she is typically uninterested in local government. “These are the people I voted for? Now I will pay attention and do my research.”

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

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