A former city council candidate and Latino resident has filed a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city of Garden Grove, arguing that the city’s at-large election system dilutes the voting power of Latino residents.

The lawsuit filed Monday afternoon on behalf of Rickk Montoya, who ran for City Council in the Nov. 2014 general election, brings to the fore an issue that has been in the background of Garden Grove politics for years but council members have been reluctant to address.

The City Council recently voted to hire a demographics firm to study whether polarized voting exists in the city. The action was in response to a threat by the state branch of the national Latino legal rights advocacy group MALDEF to sue if the city doesn’t move toward abolishing its at-large electoral system and establishing district-based elections.

Montoya’s complaint argues that despite the move to hire the demographics firm, the City Council has been “dithering in inaction.”

Montoya’s attorney, Kevin Shenkman, said the city first received a letter from his firm back in February 2014 alleging a violation of the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. But rather than taking action then,  the city council waited for a second threat of litigation before taking any action, according to the lawsuit.

“They already know there’s racially polarized voting in Garden Grove – we told them that more than a year ago,” Shenkman said. “Latino voting rights is not something that’s there to sit and wait while the city council decides to maybe get around to it.”

Shenkman’s firm recently settled a lawsuit against the city of Fullerton on behalf of Kitty Jaramillo, a Latino city council candidate. It also won a Voting Rights Act case against the city of Palmdale, after a three-year court battle that went to the California Supreme Court and resulted in $7 million in legal fees.

Cases like these have spurred a trend among jurisdictions statewide to implement district elections after being sued by advocates or to avoid potential litigation.

At a City Council meeting earlier this year, councilman Kris Beard proposed a resolution to place district elections on the Nov. 2016 ballot. He said his proposal was not based on any threat of litigation but because he thought it “was the right thing to do.”

Mayor Bao Nguyen supported Beard’s proposal while other council members felt it was too soon given the lack of a permanent city manager, a new council, and new projects competing for staff’s attention.

Zeke Hernandez, President of the Santa Ana chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which has been working with MALDEF to spearhead the push for district elections in Garden Grove, said they’ve been aware of Montoya’s efforts and both have tried to work with the city before pursuing litigation.

“While a lawsuit is a very potent route to take, it is our primary focus to work with these entities rather than to tap into the public’s ‘tax trust fund,’” Hernandez said. “The courts are an option if and only all parties are not able to come to an agreement at the early stages.”

Shenkman noted that Montoya has tried other ways to push the city to shift toward by-district elections, but is now “left with the perhaps unpopular option of litigation.”

Citing votes on different statewide propositions from 1994 to 2003, Montoya’s complaint argues that Latinos in Garden Grove not only vote in a bloc, but also make different choices from non-Hispanic white voters in the city.

No Latino has ever been elected to the city council, although Latino candidates ran in the last five elections, according to the complaint.

Montoya was “one of those Latino candidates in the 2014 city council elections, was preferred by Latinos in that election, but lost due to a lack of support among non-Hispanic voters,” the complaint continues.

Montoya wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Interim City Manager Allan Roeder said Monday evening that the city hasn’t yet been served with the lawsuit.

The city responded to Montoya’s letter last year by arguing that, based on its own analysis, there’s no polarized voting in Garden Grove.

Relying on statewide data from the Center for Demographic Research at CSU Fullerton, the city argues that “Hispanic voters are dispersed throughout the city and do not have sufficient numbers to constitute a majority in a council district,” according to the letter by James Eggart of the city’s contract legal firm, Woodruff, Spradlin and Smart.

Even if the city were divided into districts, Hispanic voters would have to form coalitions to win any election, the letter argues.

Meanwhile, both Shenkman and Art Montez of Santa Ana LULAC have questioned the competency of the Dolinka Group, which is the firm hired by the city to conduct a demographics study. The firm also conducted studies for the Garden Grove Unified School District and Anaheim City School District.

“While Dolinka Group may be qualified to draw districts — and I have serious doubts about that, particularly because of how they have bumbled other districting engagements,” Shenkman said, citing a study for the Hart Union School District. “Dolinka Group stated that they should ‘respect incumbency as much as possible’ in drawing districts, even though that is directly contrary to California law.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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