Beginning as early as next week, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union will be deposing current and possibly former Anaheim City Council members in a civil rights case that alleges the city’s electoral system disenfranchises Latinos.
ACLU attorney Bardis Vakili wouldn’t disclose specific questions, but said that attorneys are seeking answers on whether council members are “responsive to the needs of the Latino community,” among other things.
“Just like any other lawsuit you take depositions to try and get evidence to prove your case,” Vakili said.
The ACLU’s case claims that Anaheim’s current at-large voting system violates the 2001 California Voting Rights Act because it does not give Latinos — who make up 54 percent of the city’s population — the opportunity to elect council members who truly represent their neighborhoods.
In order to prove their case, the ACLU has to show a pattern of racially polarized voting in Anaheim, with Latinos consistently voting for losing candidates. The trial date is March 17.
Activists say the result of this inadequate representation is a council that represents major business interests and affluent communities over the needs of working-class neighborhoods fraught with social and economic challenges.
The case has sparked intense debate, with each side releasing opposing studies on whether city resources are unevenly distributed.
Latino leaders say the remedy for the current reality is an electoral system in which council members are elected by districts and would have to be responsive to their communities to win election. Members of the current all-white council reside in neighborhoods ranging from middle-class to wealthy.
Opponents of district elections argue that the system would balkanize the council and result in political gridlock. Rather than focusing on the overall health of the city, council members would fight only for their districts, leading to less representation and a dysfunctional government, they say.
Vakili said the ACLU plans on deposing all five council members, and possibly former council members.
Former Mayor Curt Pringle – an influential lobbyist whose clients include major businesses like Disneyland and a hotel developer that received a controversial $158-million tax subsidy – “certainly has the kind of knowledge we’d be interested in asking about,” Vakili said.
Councilwoman Gail Eastman was scheduled for a deposition on Wednesday, but that has been postponed to a date uncertain, Vakili said. Councilwoman Lucille Kring’s deposition was scheduled for Oct. 29, but is being rescheduled, he said.
There are still unanswered questions about the depositions. According to Vakili and plaintiff Jose Moreno, attorneys with the city and ACLU are negotiating over how far reaching the questioning can be.
“The other side may want to protect their city council members from certain types of questions,” Vakili said. “None of that’s been resolved.”
Moreno says that the council, which has touted transparency in the past, should remain committed to that principle and allow themselves to testify for the record on a wide ranging set of questions.
“It seems to me that same rationale and ethic would apply here as well,” Moreno said.
Council members Jordan Brandman, Kring, Eastman, and Kris Murray did not return phone calls seeking comment. Mayor Tom Tait declined comment, citing confidentiality of closed session discussions.
Still unanswered is whether the ACLU and the city will allow reporters at the depositions. The city’s position is that investigative records, such as the depositions, will remain confidential until the case concludes, according to city spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz. And Vakili said the ACLU hasn’t decided whether to allow reporters to be present.
Voice of OC has requested reporter access to the testimony.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the open government advocacy group Californians Aware and a Voice of OC consultant, said that all proceedings of a civil case involving the public’s interest should be made public.
“We’re not dealing with private matters, corporate confidentiality, divorce or something like that, this is a dispute over how people are represented in local government itself. There is a very strong argument for the deposition in this matter being public,” Francke said.
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Councilwoman Lucille Kring’s deposition was scheduled for Oct. 29. Her deposition is being rescheduled, according to Vakili.