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Cheered on by a broad range of Anaheim community members, a panel of retired judges this week officially endorsed a map for the city’s first voting districts.
An audience of Latino activists, advocates for other ethnic groups, and several white residents burst into cheers Wednesday when the city’s Advisory Committee on Electoral Districts voted unanimously to recommend the map.
Several loud chants of “¡Sí Se Puede!” then rang through the meeting chambers.
The judges, in turn, were effusive in their praise of residents who participated in the months-long mapmaking process, noting the rarity of widespread agreement on a political issue.
“Somehow we have wound up with a plan – the plan we are recommending – that has virtually, I think maybe entirely, unanimous support of all the people who have participated so actively in this project,” said the panel’s chairman, retired appeals court Justice Edward Wallin.
“It’s kind of amazing. You can hardly ever imagine something in a political setting to be this unified.”
All of the speakers who addressed the committee Wednesday endorsed the recommended plan.
“I am proud to be an Anaheimer because of you. So thank you so much for hearing our voices,” Rida Hamida, an activist speaking on behalf of Arab-American community groups, told the retired judges.
“It’s a hard fight, but I think you have the support of the people,” said Art Montez, a longtime Latino advocate with LULAC.
The six-district map was proposed by Oscar Reyes, a 24 year-old Anaheim resident, and was chosen after months of deliberation among residents, the panel of judges, and city-hired consultants.
It provides for one district in which Latinos are a majority of voting-eligible residents, and two districts where Latinos outnumber whites. Whites would have a major voting advantage in the one district, which covers Anaheim Hills, as well as a modest advantage over Latino voting-eligible residents in another district.
The recommendation now goes to the City Council, which has final say on where the voting districts will be for next November’s council election. The first discussion is scheduled for Oct. 6, when council members are expected to set up a schedule for three hearings on the issue.
Martin Lopez, an Anaheim resident and union organizer, expressed concern that city council members might change the maps. He implored the judges to stay involved and ensure that “the people’s voice will not be ignored.” Wallin indicated he would attend the council meetings.
City Attorney Michael Houston, meanwhile, noted the council will be considering the entire record of the panel’s work, including maps that weren’t recommended.
At the same time, he said, “I think all parties recognize the importance of this committee” making its recommendation.
The development comes amid a decades-long battle over representation of working-class Latino residents at Anaheim City Hall.
While more than half of the city’s residents are Latino, all five of the current council members are white, and few Latinos have ever served on the council.
One reason for this dynamic, according to Latino advocates, is that the city’s at-large voting system makes it much more expensive to run for office, and thus more difficult for working-class candidates to succeed.
In 2012, the ACLU and three residents sued the city in an effort to force a change toward district elections, where voters elect a representative for their area of the city, as well as an at-large mayor.
Rather than fighting the case all the way to trial, the city settled, agreeing to let voters decide whether to shift to district voting and expand the council from five to seven seats.
Both measures passed at last November’s election, with district elections getting approval from 69 percent of voters.
The recent process of choosing the district map was hailed by all those who spoke – residents, activists, city staff and the former judges – as a major success in citizen engagement, in a city that is often sharply divided politically.
Committee member and retired Judge James Jackman said it was “absolutely amazing” to see the various stakeholders work together.
“I think Congress could take a lesson in terms of give and take” and considering “other people’s points of view,” said retired Judge James Jackman. he added.
The process involved a major public outreach campaign by city staff and activists, including about 10 meetings. While attendance was relatively sparse at some of the early meetings, several of the later forums drew over 100 people.
Much of the organizing to get residents involved was done by the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, and Unite Here Local 11, advocates said.
Advocates and judges also credited the city’s staff and consultants for putting long hours into ensuring residents’ voices were heard.
Houston and City Clerk Linda Andal were at City Hall past 1 a.m. early Wednesday working on their report about the districts, advocate Victoria Michaels said.
Meanwhile, the retired judges and activists alike emphasized that the public involvement should continue into the elections.
“You were heard because you participated and devoted many hours to this process. And I hope you will devote many more hours to registration and in getting people to the polls” in the next election, Wallin told the audience.