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As Garden Grove begins transitioning to a system of electing city council members by district, some are concerned about what the changes will do to the influence of the city’s mayor.
The new system is the result of a settlement reached in September between the city and a Latino resident who filed a lawsuit in July alleging the city’s at-large election system has disenfranchised Latino voters and violates the California Voting Rights Act.
Under the new district-based system agreed upon in the settlement, not only will council members be elected from five electoral districts, but the mayor will no longer be directly elected, and instead be appointed by fellow council members.
Although the mayor has no special powers and the post is largely ceremonial, the change matters in Garden Grove, where mayors have long used the power and influence of the pulpit to steer the direction of the City Council.
Former Mayor Bruce Broadwater, who left office last year after five terms, was nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his brash, domineering style.
Broadwater used his influence to push an economic policy focused on growing the city’s tax base through new hotels and major developments — literally bulldozing blighted sections of the city to achieve it.
Mayor Bao Nguyen, by comparison, has been isolated by his council colleagues. Although Nguyen has been able to use the office to push for upgrading the city’s online resources and promote tech innovation events, many of his proposals have failed for a lack of votes.
At Tuesday’s regular council meeting, some residents voiced concerns that their right to directly elect a mayor was being “taken away.”
John Holm, a member of the Downtown Business Association who opposes district elections, fears that dividing the city into districts will result in an unfocused council without a cohesive vision.
“I like to see a mayor with muscle, and a council that looks down the road…they provide a long view,” Holm said.
Resident Charles Mitchell brought copies of district maps that he and other citizens drew nearly a decade ago, a proposal for a six-district system with a mayor elected at-large. Mitchell said the city could have avoided the lawsuit entirely by considering district elections back when they had been proposed.
But not everyone agrees.
Rickk Montoya, the resident and unsuccessful city council candidate whose brought the Voting Rights Act lawsuit, said a council-appointed mayor would limit the power and influence of any one council member on city affairs.
“It also has the added benefit of further enforcing our current term limits by making it impossible to move from councilmember to mayor and back in order to maintain power and influence,” Montoya said.
Despite protests from some residents, Montoya’s attorney Kevin Shenkman says that under the California Voting Rights Act, challenging an at-large election system includes every seat elected by that method.
“That doesn’t mean a court couldn’t adopt a remedy that maintains an at-large mayor in appropriate circumstances,” Shenkman said. “Where the mayor position is so distinct from any other councilmember, not because of ceremonial tasks, but [because they have] significant, additional real powers.”
In the city of Anaheim, for example, which will expand the number of seats on its city council and begin voting by district in Nov. 2016, the mayor will still be elected at-large.
Acting City Attorney Omar Sandoval echoed Shenkman’s point at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“The mayor does not have any special powers over the council — the mayor has one vote, he does not have the right to veto,” Sandoval said. “The only additional authority the mayor has is to appoint members to different commissions — but it’s subject to the approval of the city council. So really all the mayor does is nominate and preside over meetings.”
The majority of Orange County cities treat the mayor as a rotating role between council members, added councilman Kris Beard, who has been a strong proponent of district elections in Garden Grove.
Nguyen believes being mayor does demand more of him than other council members, both symbolically and in practice.
“I meet with a lot of constituents — people want to hear from their mayor … and it does give me a unique perspective on the city that other council members may not have,” Nguyen said.
“However, I think having the mayor be a position where we rotate wouldn’t be so much different — it gives everybody the opportunity to listen and lead the council,” Nguyen said. “That way we’ll have, ideally, a mayor that would come from different parts of the city. And we’d have to work together and do what’s best for the city as a whole.”
Councilman Phat Bui disagreed.
“Obviously the mayor has many other powers and decisions…one of which is the vision and making sure that the economic development in our city would (sic) excel,” Bui said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council also voted to hire Compass Demographics to start the process of drawing district maps, one of the stipulations of the settlement to the lawsuit.
Shenkman, who has represented a number of plaintiffs challenging at-large elections, said that decision was based on negative experiences with the other two firms previously considered by the city, the National Demographics Corporation and the Dolinka Group.
Hiring Compass Demographics is the beginning of a long public process to draw the electoral districts according to state law and a series of hearings to gather public input.
Montoya said he’s satisfied with how the lawsuit has been settled.
“With our recent history of power resting in the hands of so few and for so long, I feel this change not only puts an end to this era, but also opens the door to constant flow of fresh ideas and new leadership,” Montoya said.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.