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Pomona Voter-Discrimination Suit Dismissed

November 13, 1986|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

A federal court judge Wednesday rejected claims by a minority voting-rights group that Pomona's at-large election system discriminates against the city's large black and Latino populations.

In dismissing the lawsuit brought by the Southwest Voter Registration Project, U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman said the group failed to meet standards set down in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision as necessary to prove an at-large election system discriminates against minority voters.

"We're very happy," said City Atty. Patrick Sampson. "It validates our election procedure, which we've used for all the hundred years of our existence. It shows that cities in California are far different from the cities in the Deep South and the Southwest as far as the history of segregation, voter discrimination and demographics are concerned."

The Texas-based group, representing three defeated City Council candidates, had contended that Pomona's at-large elections for the five-member council violate the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the minority vote.

The class-action suit had argued that the system should be replaced with district-by-district representation.

No Minority Councilmen

Minorities make up nearly 50% of Pomona's estimated 113,000 population, 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 now.

City officials, however, had maintained that the suit was unfounded and based on erroneous assumptions about Pomona's minority population.

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

'Minorities Are Not Segregated'

"Of 32 elections, there are only two instances where minority candidates won in their district but lost citywide," McDermott said in court Wednesday. "The reason you don't have it is that minorities are not segregated. They live throughout Pomona."

Attorneys for the Texas group, which already has done preliminary work on nearly two dozen similar cases in California, said that they would appeal Ideman's decision.

"It's just part of the process we have to go through on the way to eventual victory," Rolando L. Rios, legal director for the group, said after the decision. "There's no question in our mind that if Pomona had had single-member districts, you would have minorities on the City Council."

Ideman said in his ruling that the voting-rights group had not demonstrated that minorities in Pomona were politically cohesive, that they were sufficiently concentrated so that minority districts could be drawn or that an Anglo voting bloc had consistently defeated minority candidates--criteria established by the U.S. Supreme Court as necessary to prove discrimination.

Attorneys for Pomona had argued that their case could be distinguished from other voting-rights cases by the presence of two minority groups that they said that did not form a single voting bloc.

'Can't Be Lumped Together'

"(Blacks and Latinos) are disparate," said Sampson. "They can't be lumped together."

The trial, which began June 17, was recessed four days later when McDermott--before presenting the city's defense--asked Ideman to dismiss the case. Ideman agreed to consider the motion for dismissal and requested attorneys for both sides to submit briefs outlining their arguments.

William Velasquez, Southwest's executive director, said the group has pressed more than 80 such cases throughout the western United States since the late 1960s without a defeat, although several of the cases still are in various stages of litigation.

In more than 80% of the cases, Velasquez said, defendants have settled before the trial. The Pomona case is believed to be the first of its kind in the state to reach trial.

Paid Attorney Fees

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

Pasadena city officials agreed to pay $250,000 in attorney fees after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs were the catalysts in getting the issue on the ballot.

In June, after attorneys for Pomona had begun lining up expert witnesses to defend the at-large election system, Velasquez said the city was responding with the toughest legal battle his group had ever faced.

"We've had to stop everything we're doing all over the country so we can deal with this one here," Velasquez said at the time. "These guys are trying to blow us out of the water."

City officials said they were fighting the suit vigorously because they considered it racist and a ploy for political power.

Black and Latino voters are so dispersed throughout the city that it would be impossible to draw districts more effective at electing minority candidates than under the at-large system, McDermott said.

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