Brea residents want their city council members to keep their election system that’s been in place for over a century  – no matter the cost – against a legal threat that’s forcing city officials to consider switching to district voting.

It’s a change council members don’t want to make either, but say they’re forced to do so to avoid a costly lawsuit following allegations that the city is violating the state’s voting rights act by disenfranchising Latino and Asian Voters.

If city officials fight a losing court battle, they could also lose their ability to draw up their districts.

“The whole council is against this, we all feel that we’re being pushed into a corner and threatened and none of us like it at all,” said Councilman Steven Vargas at Wednesday’s public hearing on the issue.

A couple of residents are now suing the city to stop the switch from happening – a first in Orange County where cities and school districts have routinely been hit with lawsuits and legal threats to force them to transition to district elections.

[Read: Brea Officials Consider District Elections While Facing Two Competing Legal Threats Over Voting]

In by-district elections, residents can only vote for a candidate who lives in their district – only having a say on who gets to sit on one of the seats at the dais.

In at-large elections, voters across the city can vote for as many candidates as there are council seats up for grabs. For example, if three seats are up for election, voters can vote for three candidates – the top three vote-getters are then elected to those seats.

The lawsuit against the city was filed by two former city council candidates, Richard Rios and Michael Kim, whose failed campaigns were used by attorney Kevin Shenkman in the allegations against the city as examples of vote dilution by the current election system in place in Brea.

Shenkman represents the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the group alleging the city is disenfranchising minority voters.

[Read: Battle Breaks Out in Brea Over District Voting, City Contemplates Election Changes]

Steve Baric, the attorney for Kim and Rios, said at the public hearing last week that his clients don’t want to sue the city but felt compelled to do so.

“The issues that the (California Voting Rights Act) was created to avoid and to alleviate, don’t exist in the city. But we all understand why you’re doing this. You feel like you have a gun pointed at your head,” he said. 

He also encouraged council members to wait and see the outcome of a case regarding a change to Santa Monica’s election system that has reached the California Supreme Court.

“There’s a case in the California Supreme Court right now that would deal with some of these issues that have never been addressed before, like what’s the definition of racially polarized voting? How do you prove it?” Baric said in a phone interview Saturday.

“Our argument has been why don’t we wait and see what direction the California Supreme Court gives us.”

Council members held a closed session meeting following their meeting Wednesday to discuss the lawsuit against them filed by Rios and Kim.

Markman requested the abrupt closed session meeting, who said there is a possibility that Baric will request a temporary restraining order from an OC Superior Court judge this week to stop the council members moving forward with the process of switching to district elections.

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Meanwhile, one resident is offering to help pay for legal fees if the city gets sued for not switching to district voting.

During Wednesday’s public comment, Dwight Manley, resident and business owner, cut the city a check for $100,000 to help pay for legal fees if the city declines to transition to district elections and gets sued. 

“I’m begging you to fight for the city of Brea and stand up and not just roll over,” Manley said at Wednesday’s public hearing. “This is a fighting moment. This is not we give in.” 

He said if the city doesn’t get sued, the money can be used on the senior center.

Councilman Glenn Parker said even with that sizable sum, if the city was sued that money would “evaporate” quickly.

He also said if he didn’t care how the council spends taxpayer money, he would be willing to fight the matter in court.

“But we have to be responsible,” Parker said. “Having that money available for police and fire, public maintenance is critical and I don’t want to take money away from that either. So at some point, we have to make a decision forward.”

At the meeting, council members  – despite their own opposition against switching their election system – unanimously settled on a map that would carve their city into five voting districts.

City Attorney Jim Markman said city council members can still pull away from the switch altogether and nothing is finalized until a second reading on the map is approved by the council.

The deadline to submit the map to the Orange County Registrar of Voters by April 17 and the council will meet to discuss the map again on April 5.

In a phone interview Saturday, Baric said the request for a restraining order will depend on what action the city takes.

“We’ll see what happens on the fifth of April,” he said

Photo of Brea city civic and cultural center, on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Credit: DEVON JAMES, VOICE OF OC

Resident Sean Nelson spoke in favor of districting voting – the lone proponent at Wednesday’s public hearing.

“We need to be able to have somebody that the people can come to and say you live in our neighborhood, you know the problems, you understand the problems,” he said.

Other residents like Manley have been pushing back on the switch, raising concerns it will divide their small community and weaken voter voices – concerns that council members themselves have.

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In 2019, city officials received a letter from Shenkman, an attorney representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which alleged that voting in Brea was racially polarized and the city’s current election system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. 

“The City of Brea’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos and Asians (both ‘protected classes’) – to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the City’s elections,” Shenkman wrote.

He also gave them a choice: voluntarily ​​look into transitioning from “at-large elections” to “by-district elections” or face a lawsuit.

Shortly afterwards, council members adopted a resolution stating their intent to transition to district voting after they get the results of the 2020 census.

Shenkman has routinely represented people and groups who sue cities throughout the state over the last decade under the California Voting Rights Act.

A similar letter from Shenkman was sent to Cypress city council members, who voted in closed session earlier this month to ignore it. They also said they don’t plan on changing their election system, according to the Orange County Register.

Over the past seven years, cities in Orange County and across California have switched to district elections after facing similar legal threats.

In recent years cities like Garden Grove, San Juan Capistrano, Fullerton, Orange and Santa Ana switched from at-large elections to district elections either facing threats of litigation or lawsuits themselves.

Anaheim and Mission Viejo have also been forced to change their election systems.

A similar letter to the Brea Olinda Unified School District forced the district switch to district elections in 2020.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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