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Pomona Puts Up Tough Fight for Its Election System

June 15, 1986|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

POMONA — After successfully arguing more than 70 similar cases, leaders of a minority voting-rights group challenging this city's at-large election system say that Pomona is responding with the toughest legal battle they have ever faced.

"We've had to stop everything we're doing all over the country so we can deal with this one here," William Velasquez, executive director of the Texas-based Southwest Voter Registration Project, said of the class-action suit against the city. "These guys are trying to blow us out of the water."

The Texas group, representing three defeated City Council candidates, will begin arguing Tuesday in federal court that Pomona's at-large election system violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act because it discriminates against the city's large black and Latino populations.

Seeks to Change System

Charging that citywide elections dilute the minority vote, the suit seeks to eliminate the at-large system in favor of district-by-district voting and asks that the city hold a new general election.

Minorities make up nearly 50% of Pomona's estimated 112,000 residents, but only two members of racial or ethnic minorities have been elected to the council in the city's 99-year history, and none are serving there now.

City officials, however, say they will rely on expert witnesses to prove that the suit itself is discriminatory and a ploy for political power.

"I think Pomona was targeted," Mayor G. Stanton Selby said. "They're trying to make an example of us. . . . Although we're trying to do what's right for Pomona, we're also protecting other cities in the state of California from this sort of thing."

Fundamental Flaw

John McDermott, a Century City attorney who is representing Pomona, described the city as racially integrated and said a district voting system would "ghettoize" minorities rather than empower them.

"The fundamental flaw in this whole thing is that (Southwest) is taking something that made sense 3,000 miles away and trying to apply it to a place as complex and different as Southern California," McDermott said.

With preliminary work already completed on cases for another 23 California cities, Southwest leaders say that the Pomona suit is intended to kick off a statewide campaign aimed at abolishing at-large elections.

The suit, which was filed last year in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, is believed to be the first case of its kind in the state to reach trial. A similar suit filed simultaneously against Watsonville in Northern California is still in preliminary proceedings, Southwest attorneys said.

Previous Suit Mooted

Another suit, filed by other civil rights groups against Pasadena in 1979, was declared moot when voters opted for a district election system the following year.

The city agreed to pay $250,000 in attorney fees after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that those who filed the case were the catalysts in getting the issue on the ballot.

Statistics provided by the League of California Cities show that only 15 of the state's 444 incorporated cities hold district elections. Of the remaining 429 cities, all have at-large systems, although nine, like Pomona, require candidates to live in and be nominated from districts before the at-large general election voting.

"(California) lags behind the most" in establishing a voting system that encourages minority participation, Velasquez said. "It has the largest gap between potential and realization."

81 Other Lawsuits

The Texas group has pressed 81 similar lawsuits against cities, school districts and counties throughout the Western United States since the late 1960s without a defeat, Velasquez said, although eight cases still are in various stages of litigation.

In more than 80% of the cases, he said, defendants have settled before the trial.

However, Pomona is fighting the suit vigorously, Selby said, because the city should not have to change its election system simply to satisfy a few people who do not like the results it produces.

"I think it's racist," he said of district elections. "Every individual in this city has an equal chance to become an elected city official. . . . It all depends on how hard they want to work."

Legal Costs Mount

So far, Selby said, the financially troubled city has spent more than $200,000 to fight the case. Selby said that he believes most of the money will be recovered through liability insurance policies that cover the city's legal expenses.

"You don't lay over and play dead," he said. "It's unfortunate that they did bring the suit, but if you're right you have to fight for it."

Plaintiffs in the case are Joseph Lee Duncan, Tomas Ursua and Willie White, all unsuccessful City Council candidates over the last three years, and Gloria Romero and Harold Webb, who managed unsuccessful campaigns.

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