A motion has been filed in Orange County Superior Court that alleges the Fullerton City Council’s selection of a proposed district election map for November’s ballot violates state and federal voting rights law.
The motion claims that council members’ selection last month of a map that was submitted at the last minute (known as “8A”) by the city’s business interests violates the settlement agreement and voting rights laws because it fails to create any majority-minority districts and that the city should choose the community-driven map (known as “2B”), according to the motion, filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit.
The move towards district-based voting is the result of a settlement reached last July after a suit filed by attorney Kevin Shenkman on behalf of resident Kitty Jaramillo — and another by the American Civil Liberties Union and Asian Americans Advancing Justice on behalf of resident Jonathon Paik — alleging that the current at-large electoral system disenfranchises minority voters.
The city is 22.8 percent Asian and 34.4 percent Latino, according to the 2010 Census. All five council members are white and an Asian hasn’t sat on the council since 2000.
Shenkman said that map 8A was drawn in a fashion that would keep Councilmen Greg Sebourn and Doug Chaffee from having to run against each other because it split up the northwest part of Fullerton. Shenkman said that while drawing a map with incumbents in mind may not be illegal on the federal level, it violates the California Voting Rights Act.
Unlike the original version, map 8A’s boundary in the northwest corner jumps off of State College Boulevard, which created a bump on the map.
“There’s no possible reason for deviating from State College Boulevard … except to capture Greg Sebourn’s house,” Shenkman said.
Shenkman is also concerned about map 8A’s splintering of the downtown Fullerton community. The map was drawn up by Jeremy Popoff, owner of the Slidebar bar and restaurant, at the last minute and heavily backed by downtown business owners.
“Dividing a downtown area up is an interesting one, because what happens then is downtown residents voting power is reduced, but downtown business owners’ influence is increased,” Shenkman said, echoing many concerns of residents in the area.
Downtown resident Jane Rands, who is writing up an argument against map 8A for November’s ballot, said that the map will be “more of the same” because the downtown community won’t have a solid voice on the council.
Like Shenkman and Rands, Jeanette Vazquez — author of map 2B — is concerned that map 8A didn’t go through any rounds of community hearings and public input like 2B did.
“We did everything we could. We’ve engaged so many people in the Fullerton community” during the process of drawing up map 2B, Vazquez said.
“Districts are supposed to be about voters and not businesses. That got turned on its head a little bit here,” Shenkman said. “I’m disappointed that this process became somewhat of a pissing match.”
While the total voter population in districts is not that different between the two maps, map 2B gives Asians a majority, where map 8A would give them a plurality. Latinos maintain a plurality in both maps. A group has a majority if it makes up more than 50 percent of a district; it has a plurality if its residents outnumber other groups in the district.
Heated Council Meeting
The debate over which map should head to the November ballot sharply divided residents and business owners at last month’s council meeting.
Wanda Shaffer, a resident and a director of the League of Women Voters of North Orange County, told the council during public comment that map 2B was “chosen by the people.”
“At the public meetings, it was obvious to me that map 2B was generally the map that was most agreeable,” Shaffer said, emphasizing that map 8A was available only after the public outreach.
Like many 2B supporters, another resident was angry at the lack of public process surrounding map 8A.
“A handful of downtown bar owners came in at the 11th-hour and hijacked my democratic process,” resident Glenda Flock said.
Meanwhile, map 8A drew support from some local officials and Assemblywoman Young Kim at last month’s meeting. The supporters all agreed that downtown Fullerton is the hub of the city.
“You have the opportunity tonight to pick a map that brings us all together by having our districts meet in a natural meeting place — downtown, the heart of our community,” Kim told the council.
Kim said that it’s a fair map that respects the California Voting Rights Act. She added that she hasn’t seen a “pattern of racism” in the election process in Fullerton, and cited her majority support from Fullerton in 2014 that helped her reach state Assembly.
“I’m here to tell you, that I simply have not seen that to be a case,” Kim said. “Asian Americans are served well by map 8A.”
Resident and Planning Commissioner Larry Bennett echoed some of Kim’s views.
“To suggest that a minority candidate with good ideas and a good work ethic … can’t be elected is, to me, a little bit offensive,” Bennett said.
Bennett said map 2B seemed forced upon the city.
“So, the key to winning support for any district map, in my opinion, is feeling that we chose this map as a community, not one that was forced down our throats,” Bennett said.
Councilman Doug Chaffee had similar concerns over the image of map 2B.
“2B has a stigma to it. It’s been labeled as a map submitted by the ‘plaintiff group.’ There’s a lot of resentment over that,” Chaffee said during council deliberations. He added that the downtown area is a “city within a city,” and that “we split it up to bring us closer together.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jan Flory also agreed that downtown is the hub of Fullerton. “I fail to understand how it hurts any of our communities to have a stake in the downtown area.”
Flory was disappointed at participation in the community hearings. She said a total of 134 people attended the eight meetings since September and Ely met with an additional 82. Map 8A was not apart of that process.
Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald shared some of Flory’s participation concerns. She said political organizations from outside the city attended the community meetings that made her “wonder about those motivations.”
“This was a process for our community,” Fitzgerald said. “We followed the public process we agreed to. We never agreed to a guaranteed outcome.”
The Popoff-owned Slidebar in downtown gave $1,000 to Fitzgerald’s campaign last year. Florentine’s Bar and Grill, another downtown business, gave Fitzgerald’s 2016 campaign $250, according to her most recent campaign statements.
Shenkman is unsure of what the court is going to do. “This is not a motion that happens all the time. We’ve never had this issue before.”
The court hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Santa Ana central courthouse.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California represented Kitty Jaramillo in her Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city of Fullerton. Her attorney is Kevin Shenkman.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.