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Santa Ana voters could decide in June whether to switch from city-wide voting to district-based City Council seats in time for the November election, if a proposal on Tuesday’s council agenda moves forward.

The district plan appeared likely to have enough City Council votes to make it onto the June ballot, with the minimum-required four council members out of seven supporting it.

A similar ballot proposal was rejected by the City Council in January 2017, with four council members opposing it, two supporting it, and one absent from that meeting.

But the dynamic appears to have changed, with one of the prior opponents on the council – Jose Solorio – and the previously-absent member – Vicente Sarmiento – now in support.

Solorio, Sarmiento, and Councilman David Benavides served on a three-member “ad hoc” committeere that recommended the ballot measure last week. The other supportive council member is Sal Tinajero, who began advocating for the measure after the 2016 election and voted for placing it on the ballot in the unsuccessful effort last year.

Support from a fifth council member would be required to pay the estimated $202,000 cost in the middle of the fiscal year, but cities won’t receive bills for ballot measures until July or later, after Santa Ana’s new fiscal year starts, according to the county’s top elections official, Neal Kelley. That means the cost can be included in the upcoming annual budget that goes into effect July 1. It would require support from just four council members, according to Benavides and past city practice.

Proponents of the districting effort have argued it would reduce the influence of groups that can give lots of campaign money, like the city police officers’ association, by offering grassroots candidates a less expensive way to campaign, including walking door-to-door in one of six districts, as opposed to having to spend money on mailers to reach all of the city’s 98,000 voters.

Opponents have argued district elections would take away the ability of voters to hold the entire council accountable, and risk lessening Latino representation on the currently all-Latino council. And they say the effort is a ruse to reset the clock on term limits for its proponents, some of whom cannot run for re-election this year due to term limits.

The proposed ballot measure doesn’t say if it would reset the term limits for current council members, three of whom have reached their term limits and are not eligible to run for re-election in November. They are Benavides and Tinajero – who support the ballot measure – and Michele Martinez, who opposed the measure as of Monday.

In an interview Monday, Benavides said the measure would not reset any term limits. “The matter of terms and term limits – that’s a separate charter matter,” he said. “That’s not something that’s being considered for tomorrow night’s agenda item.”

If placed on the ballot and approved by voters, the measure would change Santa Ana’s voting system, which currently is at-large elections where City Council candidates must live in a given district, known as a “ward,” but voters across the city choose who is elected.

Instead, the system would switch to district-based voting, in which council candidates are elected only by voters within the district they’re running for.

The mayor would continue to be elected by voters citywide under Tuesday’s proposal. And the existing district boundaries would be re-drawn, but the process is not described in Tuesday’s agenda items and wouldn’t be set up until a future council meeting.

“They want to change the boundaries…but where’s the community [in that process]?” Martinez said of her council colleagues.

Typically cities set up a committee process to redraw district boundaries, she said.

“This is changing the way…that elections will be held in the future, without any community participation,” Martinez said. She also expressed concern about the projected $202,000 cost, given the city’s bleak financial picture, including a $17 million projected budget hole in the upcoming fiscal year.

Benavides said he sees the city approaching the boundary re-drawing similarly to how it’s been done in the past, which he said included a breakdown of demographics and a series of “community meetings” to look at options.

The redrawing of district boundaries does not require a ballot measure, he said.

Martinez, who voted last January against putting a districting measure on the ballot, said she opposes the current proposal, but would support it if the council also asks voters to switch the council to a to full-time council with full-time pay and staff aides.

“We’re still functioning in 19th Century, 20th Century government,” Martinez said. With all the needs of constituents, and complex issues like homelessness and transportation, she said, the city needs “a full time mayor, a full time City Council…I believe it’s time.”

Voter approval would be required for the city to switch to district elections, because it requires changing the city charter.

The city has six council members and a mayor, and its residents are 78 percent Latino, 11 percent Asian, and 9 percent white, according to the U.S. Census. The western part of the city is largely of Vietnamese heritage, and the northern part of the city has a largely white voting base.

The city faces a deadline of 5 p.m. this Friday, March 9, to submit all the necessary documents to the county Registrar of Voters to place the measure on the June ballot.

Mayor Miguel Pulido, who voted with Martinez and Councilman Juan Villegas against the districting measure last year, continues to oppose it, according to sources close to City Hall.

Villegas said Monday night he was evaluating the districting proposal and could be open to it, but had deep concerns about how the process has functioned so far.

The proposal was put forward without soliciting community input, Villegas said.

The one meeting about this particular proposal, which was by the council-member ad hoc committee last week, was not public, Villegas said, adding it was “disenfranchising” the community by not letting them have a say.

Benavides, meanwhile, pointed to prior public discussions of the district-based voting idea. “It’s something we’ve been talking about and thinking about and talking about for a while now” with members of the council and community, he said.

The city staff report for the proposal notes the city received letters last June alleging the city’s at-large system violates the California Voting Rights Act.

“The letter asserts that the City’s current practice of nominating by Ward and electing at-large dilutes the ability of Asians (a protected class) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Santa Ana’s council elections,” the staff report states.

City staff added: “The passage of the [voting rights law] made it much easier for plaintiffs to prevail in lawsuits against public entities that elected their members to its governing body through ‘at -large’ elections. A plaintiff need only prove the existence of ‘racially polarized voting’ to establish liability under the [law]. Proof of intent on the part of voters or elected officials to discriminate against a protected class is not required.”

Congressman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) also sent a letter to the City Council last summer urging them to switch to district-based voting to avoid an expensive lawsuit.

City officials responded to the June letters in August, saying they take the concerns seriously and were hiring a consultant to analyze Santa Ana’s voting demographics.

The issue then fell out of public view for months, until the ballot measure proposal was added to the agenda last Friday evening, March 2.

The City Council discussed a potential measure on district-based elections in closed session at their Feb. 20 meeting, according to the staff report. An “ad-hoc committee” of council members Benavides, Sarmiento, and Solorio then met last Thursday, March 1, and recommended the council vote Tuesday on placing a district elections measure on the June ballot.

Martinez criticized what she called the rushed nature of how her colleagues were bringing forward the proposal.

“There’s unintended consequences for moving towards this without really doing…the proper research,” Martinez said. “I’m not sure what the rush is…If they really wanted to do district elections well,” she added, they should have brought the proposal forward “months ago.”

Benavides, meanwhile, noted the previous public discussions and said it was past time for Santa Ana to move to district-based voting.

“Hopefully tomorrow will prove to be the day that we can catch up with the rest of cities that have been moving along in the democratic process in their cities and going to district elections,” he said.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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