Anaheim City Council Stalls Transition to District Elections

Outrage filled the chambers of the Anaheim City Council Tuesday night after the council majority decided to set back the city’s historic transition to a districts-based election system and scrap a previously approved districts map that had broad community support.

Dozens of residents and activists repeatedly chanted “shame on you” following the split 3-2 vote as they walked out of the chambers. Angry chatter could still be heard coming from the City Hall lobby for several minutes after the vote.

The vote went along familiar lines, with councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring, and Councilman Jordan Brandman voting in the majority; while Mayor Tom Tait and Councilman James Vanderbilt dissented.

The hectic scene was the latest chapter in an election system transition that was supposed to wrap up Tuesday night but instead has become a roller coaster of emotions for supporters of switching from electing council members at-large to electing them by district.

Moving to districts-based elections is required under a settlement between the city and Latino activists stemming from a state Voting Rights Act lawsuit. The suit, filed by Latino activists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, contended that Latino residents have been disenfranchised under the city’s at-large election system.

In October, residents were jubilant when council members adopted district boundaries in what was dubbed “the people’s map” because many believed it perfectly balanced various communities and interests in the city, and there was virtually no opposition.

But then controversy erupted when the council majority, in another 3-2 vote on Nov. 17, decided to exclude the only Latino majority district from the 2016 election and have it instead elect its first council member in 2018. The move angered supporters of districts-based elections, who accused Murray, Kring, and Brandman of subverting the lawsuit settlement.

The council majority contended that Latinos in the district already had adequate representation with Councilman James Vanderbilt, who has a white father and Peruvian mother. They also pointed out that nobody from the west end of the city had been elected in decades, and said it would be more equitable to have two districts there go up for election first.

However, Vanderbilt on Tuesday night announced that he had moved out of the district.

Latino activists and others in the community scoffed at that argument, with Brandman — the council majority’s only registered Democrat — taking the most heat. On Nov. 24, the local Democratic Central Committee condemned Brandman for his vote to exclude the Latino majority district.

Then, last week, a coalition of state and national Latino organizations — lead by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) — sent a letter to the council that accused council members of “intentional discrimination” with their vote to exclude the Latino majority district, and threatened further legal action.

Dozens of residents and activists attended the council meeting Tuesday night and described their frustration at having a decades-long era of political disenfranchisement seemingly over, only to see it extended for another two years. Several called the move a “slap in the face.”

“I don’t have words to describe my disillusionment,” resident Maria Munoz told the council in Spanish. “It’s shameful that three council members left out of the next voting cycle my district three.”

After public comments finished, Brandman proposed an alternative that both bewildered and infuriated meeting attendees. Reading from a prepared statement, Brandman said that, after some reflection, he concluded that the districts map that was praised so much and by so many was actually the source of all the acrimony.

“In the time since it has become clear to me that we have a problem. The problem is not the sequencing… the problem is the map that was recommended,” Brandman said.

Brandman reasoned that, with only one Latino majority citizen voting age population district, the map forced the council to pick between the aspirations of Latino residents and equitable representation for other parts of the city that haven’t seen many residents elected to council.

He also cited the MALDEF letter and asserted that adopting a map with only one Latino majority citizen voting age population district would open up the city to a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

Brandman’s claims triggered a tense debate among council members, with frustrated audience members often chiming in to register their opinions.

When Brandman said the current map wasn’t in the best interests of the city, it was met with shouts of “no way” and “you mean best interests of Disneyland,” reflecting the suspicion among many in the crowd that Brandman and other members of the council majority were doing Disneyland’s bidding because the resort spends hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting their candidacies.

A substantial portion of the debate centered around whether the letter from MALDEF said that adopting a map with only one Latino majority citizen voting age population would open the door to lawsuits. Brandman insisted it did, but the letter doesn’t explicitly say that.

Tait said it was “almost Orwellian” to claim that the MALDEF letter could be read to mean that city leaders should adopt a new map.

City Attorney Michael Houston acknowledged that the MALDEF letter didn’t explicitly say that council members should adopt a new map, but said that, “between the lines,” it did contain what he believed was a “veiled threat” that only a “paranoid” lawyer like himself who stays up late at night thinking about these things could see.

Essentially, Houston said MALDEF’s position appeared to be that city leaders needed to put the Latino majority district up for election in 2016 and, if they don’t, their second position was they need to adopt a map with at least two Latino majority citizen voting age population districts.

However, after a few exchanges with Tait, Houston agreed that the letter clearly said MALDEF wouldn’t sue should the council decide to put the Latino majority district up for election in 2016.

Despite Houston’s reassurances, Brandman and the council majority went ahead with the plan to scrap “the peoples’ map” and choose a different map with at least two Latino majority citizen voting age population districts. They postponed the choice indefinitely until the U.S. Census comes out with new figures early next year.

The city will have to conduct three more public hearings to choose a new map, and the process probably won’t restart until late January or early February.

After the vote, residents and activists were in a state of outrage and rallied outside of City Hall. Ada Briceño, executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, led the circle in shouts and chants, vowing to be back at City Hall with “five times” as many people in support of keeping the map the council majority decided to reject and to “shut down” the council majority.

“Are we going to fight?” Briceño yelled. “Yes!” The crowd responded.

As the crowd repeated the chant, Disneyland’s nightly fireworks thundered overhead.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek