As the deadline for the Garden Grove City Council to approve maps for the city’s new electoral districts approaches, some are saying leaders responsible for removing barriers to voting for historically underrepresented groups haven’t done enough to engage those residents in the process.
After weeks of public meetings to gather input on where to draw the boundaries of the six city council districts, the council is on track to approve final district maps at its May 10 meeting.
This is all happening because the city last September settled a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit that alleged its at-large elections system dilutes the votes of Latinos, who make up 37 percent of the city’s population, according to 2010 Census figures. The city has never elected a Latino to the council.
Yet leaders in both the Vietnamese and Latino community have said that few people know about the districting process, much less how it will impact them.
Although the city has provided translators in four languages at public hearings and community workshops on the process, those translators have gone unused at most meetings, which have attracted few members of the city’s non-English speaking community.
On March 12, just two Vietnamese American residents came to the final community meeting about the maps before a public hearing at the city council meeting on March 22.
One of the residents who showed, Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, questioned why there was not better outreach, saying she had heard about the meeting via a last-minute email from a friend.
“The public isn’t aware, so they don’t know that they should care,” said Nguyen.
City leaders say they have engaged in outreach. In addition to information posted to its website and city social media accounts, staff sent press releases to Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean-language newspapers and media organizations and included an insert in city water bills, said Assistant City Manager Maria Stipe.
There were also seven community meetings geared at explaining the process and significance of the districting process and collecting input on sample maps from the public.
Nguyen said she has not seen the districting process discussed in the three major Vietnamese-language newspapers or on local radio or television programs, one of the most popular ways that many Vietnamese Americans to get their news in Little Saigon.
“A lot of us read Vietnamese newspapers but have very limited access to smartphones and to websites,” Nguyen said.
There were similar complaints at a March 2 public meeting at the Buena Clinton Youth and Family Center, located in East Garden Grove bordering Santa Ana, where many of the city’s Latinos live.
Although there was relatively high turnout (about two dozen people) and the meeting was held almost entirely in Spanish, many of the attendees did not know what the meeting was about and had only heard about it a few hours before.
“A lot of people were very frustrated and angry, mainly because they didn’t feel like they were being reached. They didn’t know exactly what the meeting was for, and when they found out…[they said] if they knew this, they would have had their friends come as well,” said Rickk Montoya, the resident whose lawsuit led to the transition to district elections and who plans to run for city council in November.
Montoya, whose lives near the Buena Clinton neighborhood, said he was inspired by the number of Latino residents who turned out for the meeting, but was concerned about the lack of understanding about how their city government works and the purpose of the city council.
Planning Commissioner Linda Zamora, a Spanish-language interpreter, had similar concerns.
“Unless you’re connected to the city [already], you don’t know about it,” said Zamora of the districting process. “We’re going through the biggest change in sixty years, since the inception of the city, everybody needs to come get involved.”
David Ely, a demographer with Compass Demographics who was hired by the city to lead the mapping process, said turnout at public meetings has been “good,” about 15 to 20 residents at each meeting. The turnout for private meetings, however, was only half as many as he had hoped to schedule, about 12 meetings.
“We started quickly — typically there’s more lead time between the time the council announces the decision and the time we start the process,” Ely said.
So far, Ely has drawn four maps and has accepted two alternate maps submitted by residents. He ultimately plans to recommend three maps to council members, which they will vote on at their April 26 meeting.
Following the March 12 meeting, a media blitz was organized by Nguyen and Billy Le with the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California. They called Vietnamese newspapers and appeared on multiple radio and television shows — to encourage Garden Grove residents to get involved.
They also organized a last-minute meeting of community leaders for the evening of March 16, at the Cao Dai Temple in Westminster, which was televised by four Vietnamese television stations. Le, who is a resident of Garden Grove but is known for his role as a Vietnamese community liaison for the Westminster Police Department, gave a brief presentation on the maps.
Like at the Buena Clinton meeting, many expressed frustration with the lack of outreach. Others questioned how the average resident could adequately judge between the six sample maps based on the information posted to the city website.
At the Buena Clinton meeting, city staff said an announcement about the districting process was published in Excelsior, a Spanish-language paper published by Freedom Communications, the publisher of the Orange County Register.
The residents present said they didn’t subscribe to the paper, Zamora said. Many residents said they tend to get information from fliers posted in their neighborhoods or at the Buena Clinton center.
Increased public education and voter registration will be key in increasing turnout among Latino voters, who make up just 24.4 percent of the citizen voting age population, despite making up 37 percent of the city’s total population.
Just 22 percent of registered voters in 2015 had Spanish surnames, according to city data.
Voter registration is higher among Asian American voters, at 36.3 percent, especially Vietnamese American voters, who are make up 29.3 percent of registered voters and tend to have higher rates of political participation than other Asian subgroups.
Before the next public hearing, Stipe said city staff will issue press releases in multiple languages and reach out to Vietnamese media outlets again to encourage them to publish information about the district mapping process.
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.