Despite public pressure for major change to the city’s district election map, Fullerton City Council members are instead opting for minor changes to the city’s election map – one that would eliminate two incumbents from running against each other.
On a motion made by Councilman Jesus Silva, seconded by Mayor Pro Tem Doug Chaffee, the council will hold a public hearing Nov. 7 to consider a boundary change on the map that would prevent Silva from running against Councilman Greg Sebourn in 2018 for the eastern district 3.
“I don’t mind running against another incumbent … I do want to see this, if possible, to get corrected to what it originally was presented as,” Silva said at the Oct. 3 meeting. “It would be a minor adjustment I think that can be done rather easily.”
Silva, who was elected to the council last year, wants the boundaries of the original map. A change last July bumped the boundary of districts 2 and 3 off to the west of State College Boulevard, which put Sebourn’s house in district 3. The vacant district 5 will also be up for election next year.
The map, originally drawn up by Slidebar owner Jeremy Popoff, divided the public last year and took heavy criticism from Latino, Asian and downtown residents. A judge also threw out the council’s original vote for the map last July after he found it only had one public hearing and suggested it heavily favored the businesses interests in downtown and incumbents. He mandated another public hearing.
The council stuck with Popoff’s map at a subsequent heated and court-mandated public hearing last August, despite many residents’ staunch opposition to it and their strong support for a community map that was the product of months of public input and community meetings. Popoff’s original map only went through two public hearings.
The map that sparked tension in the city for much of last year is now reigniting the flame.
Some residents said the map carves downtown Fullerton up into five pieces that effectively leaves those residents without a solid voice on the council, echoing some of the same concerns voiced last year. They also called for a rework of the map or a new one.
“This special place in which I put down solid roots by making my life’s greatest investment has been callously cut up into pieces -- five pieces to be exact,” downtown resident Jane Rands said, adding that bar owners ““Devised a map to maintain their power … by minimizing the power of the residents affected by the negative impacts of the bars that spill into downtown neighborhoods.”
Another resident called the map a Catch 22.
“I don’t live in downtown, but I believe Ms. Rands and every person that lives in the downtown area deserves to have a voice. And this map breaks their voices into five little bits, which basically disenfranchises them, which is a scandal in and of itself,” Barry Levinson said. “This is not a democratic map, this is a phony map and it should’ve never happened.”
Joe Imbriano said the council sold out to bar owners.
“Map 8A (Popoff’s map) was rig job written by the liquor mafia and you went along with it,” Imbriano said. “You ignored the proper map (the community map) … These are the people that need a unified front on this council and you took that away from them intentionally.”
However, Mayor Bruce Whitaker saw the downtown situation differently.
“In my opinion … if I did live in the downtown area, I would feel as though I had superior representation. I would actually have the ear of all five council members,” Whitaker said after public comment.
Meanwhile, there was some tension on the council as well.
“I would be in favor of eliminating that gerrymander,” Chaffee said.
“I take issue with calling it a gerrymander,” Whitaker said. “What’s being referred to as gerrymandering is really the result of some of the formulas that are necessary to retain the right ratios of people on this map.” He noted that there needs to be a population balance to adhere to the California Voting Rights Act.
“We know the truth!” an audience member interjected.
“Please, be quiet,” Whitaker told the person.
“Well if you tell the truth, I won’t say anything,” the person shot back.
Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald was straightforward in her resistance to any changes.
“I have no desire to change this map or to change any of the boundaries. This was a map that was thought about and deliberated on for a very long time,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s going to open up the entire map again and that is a long arduous process that we just got finished doing and the people of Fullerton just voted on.”
The move toward district-based voting stems from a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed by attorney Kevin Shenkman on behalf of resident Kitty Jaramillo, and another by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice on behalf of resident Jonathon Paik. The settlement mandated that the city let voters decide if they want to switch to district elections and in November 53 percent of Fullerton voters approved it.
The suits alleged the old at-large election system disenfranchised Asian and Latino voters. The city is 22.8 percent Asian and 34.4 percent Latino, according to the 2010 Census, for a total of 57 percent of the city.
Shenkman is currently helping steer Lake Forest toward district elections after he sent them a letter earlier this year that warned of minority disenfranchisement.
Yet nobody on the Fullerton City Council voiced any support for a rework of the map. Although the ordinance doesn’t specifically say “minor modification,” officials argue the city code only allows for a minor modification once every two years.
If the map isn't changed and Silva runs for the district in 2018 and wins, there would be two years left on his at-large seat, which would then have to go to a special election. If Sebourn wins, Silva would serve out his at-large term which expires in 2020.
However, Sebourn said “the movement of the line and changing it may, in fact, be a very big deal.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.