Following a wave of Orange County cities and school districts, Garden Grove could be the next municipality to shift toward electing its council members by district.
Dozens of residents and proponents of district elections, including many young Latino residents from the local League of United Latin American Citizens, turned out at the council meeting Tuesday night to support the proposal by councilman Kris Beard to prepare a resolution for the November 2016 general election ballot.
Moving to a council-districts electoral system from one in which council members are elected on an at-large basis is seen as a way for minority and underserved communities to have greater representation on elected bodies.
But just six months after the departure of two major city officials, amid a city manager search, and just a month before the city is set to pass its annual budget, the majority of Garden Grove’s council had little appetite for taking on a major reorganizing of the city’s main elected body.
Nearly a third of Garden Grove’s residents are Vietnamese and another third are Latino.
Although the council currently has three elected Vietnamese Americans, and has had a strong history of Vietnamese American political participation, no Latinos have ever been elected to the city council.
Beard and Mayor Bao Nguyen, who both strongly support moving to district elections, ultimately convinced reluctant colleagues to schedule a closed session to discuss potential legal threats, but received no support for any further commitment.
Whether or not the council gets behind district elections, they city could be forced to implement a change if advocates decide to sue the city under the 2001 California Voting Rights Act and court determines racially polarized voting exists.
In Anaheim, voters passed a measure in 2014 to replace the city’s at-large voting system with district-based elections, although not before the city spent millions fighting a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In March, the ACLU and the Los Angeles-based group Asian Americans Advancing Justice a filed a lawsuit against the City of Fullerton, arguing that the city’s at-large elections violate the rights of Asian American voters, who make up 23 percent of the city’s population.
Already, local advocates with the state LULAC have sent Garden Grove officials letters demanding action.
“I’m not pursuing this for any legal purposes, it’s the right thing to do,” said Beard. “It gets people involved, it gets people engaged…[and] I would rather have a decision made by the voters than a court.”
Councilmen Phat Bui, Steve Jones and Chris Phan all said the timing on the discussion was coming at a bad time — pushing for the council to revisit the issue in 2016.
“Even if we consider this in January, we will have six months to put together what we’d like to propose,” said Bui. “Right now we have so many critical tasks – a huge deficit we have to resolve, realignment [of city leadership] this is not an easy undertaking.”
Nguyen argued that slating the issue for the Nov. 2016 presidential election would ultimately save money, given the relatively low cost of placing the ballot on a general election, $8,500, compared to the cost of a special election, $380,000.
Turnout in presidential election years is also generally higher.
Prior to his election as mayor, Nguyen was also a board trustee for the Garden Grove Unified School District, which decided last May to begin the process of discarding its at-large election system to avoid litigation.
“I’ve gone through this process with the school board [and] whether the city wins or loses, we’re going to have to pay the legal fees, just because that’s how the law was written,” said Nguyen. “It’s wise to be ahead of the game than to have it be dictated to us by a judge and have to pay those legal fees.”
Nguyen also added that moving to by-district elections should not be “a racial thing.”
“There may be concerns that this is something that would affect Asian American political power in Garden Grove — but I don’t want us to look at it like that,” said Nguyen. “The reality is Asian Americans and Latinos are both protected classes according to the California Voting Rights Act…and we can come together in that spirit.”
In addition to a potential court challenge, two proposals in the state Legislature, Assembly Bill 278 and 182, could also force cities with populations over 100,000 to make changes to their at-large voting systems.
Jones pointed to the city’s decision to wait for state legislation before cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries citywide.
“We’re a conservative city and it’s not like us to get out ahead of the horse with litigation…don’t commit funds where legislation is going to mandate something on us,” said Jones. “I think the timing on this is horrible on a lot of regards.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.