Prospects that Santa Ana would join cities like Anaheim and Garden Grove in embracing district elections were dealt a blow this week when the City Council rejected a proposal for a ballot measure on the issue.
But community organizers, who have been successful with districting efforts elsewhere, say they are considering a signature drive to put the issue on the ballot despite the council's vote.
If the activists decide to launch a campaign, they will be furthering a cause championed by Councilman Sal Tinajero, who since the November election has complained about the outsized influence of deep-pocketed political donors on the election. The largest such donor, by far, was the city’s police union, which spent over $250,000 supporting Mayor Miguel Pulido and newly-elected council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas.
All three won handily over grassroots candidates in large part because of their huge fundraising advantage, which paid for thousands of mailers to voters and experienced consultants to craft the messages in them.
Tinajero argues that grassroots candidates will have a more level playing field if council members are elected on a by-district basis, rather than through an at-large system in which candidates have to spend heavily to reach all of the city’s voters.
He first proposed shifting to district-based elections at the council's Nov. 15 meeting, and later called for a special election in 2017 to give voters a chance to enact it in time for the 2018 election. A ballot measure is needed because a new electoral system would require changes to the city charter.
While it had support from most of the prior council -- specifically Tinajero, David Benavides, Vicente Sarmiento, Roman Reyna and Angelica Amezcua — it was doomed when Villegas and Solorio took the oath of office in mid-December, replacing Reyna and Amezcua.
Nonetheless, his proposal to prepare a ballot measure went before the council on Tuesday and went down on a 4-2 vote, with only Tinajero and Benavides supporting it. Councilwoman Michele Martinez joined Pulido, Solorio and Villegas in opposing. Sarmiento didn’t show up to the meeting.
Before the council deliberated, Sandra Ortega, a community organizer with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, spoke in support of district elections, telling the council it helped Anaheim residents get more involved and gain better representation in the last election.
“We’ve seen a higher voter turnout. We’ve seen the community come together. We’ve seen them join and be a part of [a] fair democracy,” Ortega said, referring to Anaheim.
Alex Vega, who has been an on-and-off confidant of Pulido, argued that districts weren’t needed because the Latino community is already represented on the council. “We need diversity, yes. But not districts,” he said.
Tinajero reiterated his argument that district elections would allow candidates to walk their districts and meet most of the voters in their election, instead of having to rely mainly on expensive mailers.
“Money in politics really does have a huge, huge, effect in the outcome. Because it’s very difficult for a good person who’s trying to good things, to walk every single household in the city,” Tinajero said.
He also proposed asking voters to extend the requirement for living in a specific ward from 30 days to one full year before gathering signatures to run. That was aimed at Solorio, who moved to his Ward 3 seat from the other side of the city just before the 30-day deadline.
Benavides, who is also close to the health activists, supported the effort, saying it would “bring integrity to the election process.”
Martinez said she supported putting a districting measure on the November 2018 ballot, and including additional elements like campaign finance reform and making the job of council member a full-time position.
Solorio said he’s “open” to the idea of district elections, but that the ballot measure should be in 2018 to allow more voter participation. He also noted that the measure could help his opponents Tinajero and Benavides, who are termed out, reset the clock on their term limits.
“I worry there’s some – a little bit of self interest by some on this council to do exactly that,” Solorio said. “These are significant changes, important changes. We shouldn’t try to sneak ‘em through so we ourselves” can run for an additional four or eight years, he said.
He also suggested that court rulings don’t allow the city to have residency requirements beyond a single day, and cited concerns about the cost of running a ballot measure.
Tinajero sought to quash Solorio’s concerns, saying he supported adding language to the measure to make sure he and other termed-out council members can’t run again.
As for the talk of putting it on the 2018 ballot, which would mean the first district elections, if approved, would take place in 2020, Tinajero told the activists: “There’s a point here to delay it, to maybe wait you out.”
Pulido opposed the effort altogether, saying the city has been “fortunate to not have” district elections. Allowing people to move around 30 days before running for a seat gives people more choices and “freedom,” he added.
“Let the people decide, and let them have more choice…I think some of these thoughts are ill-conceived,” Pulido said of Tinajero’s effort.
Benavides shot back, saying Pulido and Solorio were “normalizing carpetbagging” and the “buying” of elections.
Anticipating efforts by his colleagues to delay the districting, Tinajero called on activists to put together their own ballot initiative, which would require thousands of signatures.
“You need to go get signatures now,” Tinajero told the activists. That would mean gathering over 10,000 valid signatures of registered voters for the 2018 ballot, and over 15,000 if they want it to go before voters sooner.
There’s a lot of interest in running such an initiative, organizers say.
“If we can work together with the city on it, great,” said Joesé Hernandez of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, which played a large role in the successful district elections effort in Anaheim.
“It might just be [that] the community will create its own process.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.