Passions Flare as Garden Grove Council Chooses Voting Districts Map

Garden Grove City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday night to select a council district map drawn by 25-year-old resident Kim Nguyen that is supported by an "historic" coalition of community groups and Latino and Vietnamese American residents, but also has its share of vocal detractors.

Although the vote was unanimous, it came after a failed motion by two council members to support another map; and a months-long, contentious process where different community groups tried unsuccessfully to reach a compromise.

Starting with this November's election, residents will begin electing council members based on a six-district map, and a mayor who will be elected at large.

The change is the result of the settlement of a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by a Latino resident, who had run unsuccessfully for city council, that alleged the city's at-large elections system diluted the vote of Latino residents, who make up 37 percent of Garden Grove's total population but have never held elected office in the city.

Districts five and six on the east side, which are majority Latino, are among the districts that will be up for election in November. Also on November's ballot will be district two, in central Garden Grove north of Chapman Avenue, and district three in the south central part of the city. Districts one, three and four will be up for election in 2018.

Nguyen's map garnered the support of several community groups outside the city, as well as residents who are a part of the Orange County League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), South Vietnamese veterans groups and the Union of Vietnamese American Student Associations of Southern California (UVSA).

The Center City Divide

While all of the map proposals shared similarities in how they divided the city's west side and majority Latino east side, the greatest disagreement was over how to draw the lines in the central part of the city.

Nguyen's map divides central Garden Grove into one district north of Chapman Avenue and two districts south of the street, divided north to south by Brookhurst Street.

It received such strong support from some residents because the map set aside two districts on the east side that were majority Latino, as well as two districts south of Chapman that are majority Asian.

Lucy Silva, a 19-year resident and Muslim American Latina, was among those who spoke in support of Nguyen's map.

"It is a fair map that represents all the neighborhoods in Garden Grove and gives every community a seat at the table going into the future," Silva said.

The map's advocates also sought to diffuse perceptions that the map would sow further division between ethnic groups.

"Don't create competition, the misunderstanding and the hatred between different ethnic groups," said resident Laura Tran. Each group should have an equal opportunity to have their own representation for the next election -- no powerhouse here. No racial favors. We just need equality and fairness."

Nguyen's map, however, was also strongly opposed by residents who felt using Brookhurst Street as a dividing line is splitting up neighborhoods in a manner that is counterintuitive to how residents live and interact with one another.

Many pointed out the map splits a neighborhood that has been the focal point for community organizing through the Central Garden Grove Neighborhood Association since residents mobilized over a referendum against a housing project in 2003.

Residents pushing for a district that maintained most of the Central Garden Grove Neighborhood Association's membership area felt Nguyen's map was an attempt by Vietnamese American political interests to maintain their citywide influence at the expense of other long-standing neighborhoods.

"I'm not prejudiced. However, when you look at [districts] three and four, they look like a Vietnamese power grab," said John Wildsmith. "The white people are not prejudiced and the reason that we haven't had representation in the Hispanic community is simply because they have not got out and voted."

Calls for Compromise

A number of compromise maps emerged in the days before Tuesday's final public hearing that attempted to incorporate the demands of Latino and Vietnamese residents and those of the Neighborhood Association, including one by the Neighborhood Association (map three) and one by Nguyen, referred to as map four.

Several speakers at Tuesday's hearing urged the council toward compromise but only a few spoke in support of map four. Many continued to support either Nguyen's map or the Neighborhood Association's proposal.

"No matter what you vote on tonight not everyone is going to be happy, and if you go with a compromise map, more than everybody will be a teensy mad but not everyone is going to be hurt," said resident Andrew Halberstadt.

The city's outside demographer, David Ely, said he thought there were problems with Nguyen's map that were ultimately corrected in her later draft, map four.

"The north-central part has much higher participation and registration rates than the southern portion of the city," said Ely. "It's not an issue of ethnicity. It's the nature of the existing participation rates in those communities in the way that communities connect with each other."

Ely also felt that map four incorporated input from the Neighborhood Association, and rejected arguments that consolidating Little Saigon into one south-central district would diminish the influence of Asian residents by "packing" voters into one district, and reducing the total number of seats available to them.

"The concept of packing and issues of vote dilution are only legitimately addressed in the context of a community that's unable to elect candidates of their choice," Ely said. "In this community, there has not been a problem with Asians being unable to elect candidates of their choice, even citywide."

But many supporters of Nguyen's map -- including Nguyen herself -- felt there was never any true desire for compromise.

"My submission four was contingent on the idea that the groups involved would come together. But people are speaking in support of other maps," Nguyen said.

Councilmen Steve Jones and Kris Beard both supported map four, noting that it would make concessions to all sides and prevent alienating any one community group.

Mayor Bao Nguyen, who was ready to vote for Kim Nguyen's map at a meeting two weeks ago, rejected the compromise map saying that few people were in favor of it.

"Why are we getting off track -- the real compromise map is [Kim Nguyen's]. That was the group that had all colors speak," said Nguyen. "Why are we choosing that no one supported?"

After a motion by Beard to approve map four failed, lacking support from Phan, Bao Nguyen and Phat Bui, the council passed Nguyen's map unanimously.

Bui said he hoped the process would have unfolded with more harmony, urging the different community groups to understand and support each other.

"I sincerely hope that moving forward we will be able to heal quicker than later," said Bui.

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