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Minorities Oppose Bid to Revamp Elections

March 10, 1988|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

Latino, black and other groups are opposing a measure on the June 7 ballot that would revamp Santa Monica City Council elections by having candidates run citywide for numbered council seats.

The City Council voted Tuesday night to place the reform measure on the ballot with five other charter amendments.

The 6-0 vote, with Councilman David Finkel abstaining, came despite objections from minorities and others who said the proposed system could be discriminatory, would make it more difficult for minorities to get elected, would protect incumbents and would not guarantee better representation.

The measure, authored by Councilman Alan Katz, puts a number on each City Council seat that is up for election. Candidates would then run for a specific seat, rather than for all the seats that are open.

'Mob Scene'

Katz said the proposed reform eliminates the "mob scene" at election time, reduces campaign costs and makes a candidate more accountable. He said it would dilute the current electoral dominance by factional slates and make it easier for an independent to get elected.

Both the current system and the proposed reform, however, require at-large elections where candidates must run citywide.

Most of the 14 people who spoke out against the measure, including representatives of local Democratic Party clubs, said they prefer setting up districts as a way to improve chances for minority representation on the council.

"We've always been opposed to at-large systems because they submerge all minorities," said Richard Fajardo, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"Numbered posts go a step further, a step backwards," he said. "Numbered seats won't do anything. You might as well keep your at-large system until you go to districting."

In a district election system, each seat represents a section of the city.

Antonio Vazquez, representing the Westside chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn., and Norm Curry, president of the Santa Monica-Venice branch of the NAACP, also said their organizations oppose the reform measure.

"The history is (that) in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana . . . for 50 years it was the process that was used, and it was used to eliminate blacks. So we have problems with this system," Curry said.

Katz said similar numbered-seat systems have been used in some Southern states to keep minorities out of office but only when a primary and runoff were involved. Because the Santa Monica election does not include a runoff, the system is not discriminatory, he said.

'Best Possible System'

"The issue is not whether districts are better than the current system or better than the proposed change; the issue is to have the best possible system now," Katz said. "While we are waiting to develop a better system, Santa Monica deserves the best possible system."

Katz, who held long discussions with some of the opponents to his measure before Tuesday night's council meeting, also offered to work on a study of districting.

However, Councilmen Herb Katz (no relation to Alan Katz) and William Jennings, who supported the numbered-seat reform, opposed districting in a city where the population is only about 90,000.

Curry of the NAACP said it is likely to be easier and less costly for a minority to run on a slate than to have to wage an individual campaign.

"There needs to be change, but this (Katz's proposal) is not the vehicle for change," Curry said in an interview. "The Pico neighborhood needs elected representation, but there is no vehicle at this time that allows that."

Many of Santa Monica's blacks and Latinos live in the Pico neighborhood.

Mayor James Conn agreed to put the measure on the ballot because he found it "benign legislation" that is neither "compelling . . . (nor) compellingly evil."

"It doesn't seem to galvanize people in the community the way a parking structure did two weeks ago," he said.

Under the current voting system, if three seats are up for election, all candidates compete en masse and the top three vote-getters win the seats. Under the proposed reform, the available seats would be numbered and a candidate would declare which seat he or she is running for. The candidate would be opposed only by other candidates running for that same seat.

All voters would be allowed to vote for all races.

Alan Katz is the lone independent on the seven-member council. The other members are divided evenly between the city's two main political factions, the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the moderate All Santa Monica Coalition.

Katz's seat and three others are up for election in November. Katz has said he will not run for reelection.

Opponents to the numbered-seat measure charged that it protects incumbents.

"This proposal should be called incumbents' insurance policy," Herman Rosenstein, who edits the Santa Monica Democratic Club newsletter, said. "This so-called election reform, I'd rather call it election deform."

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