Spurred by a recent federal court decision and a county election deadline, Oxnard City Council members this week hurried to craft a referendum measure that would do away with an at-large election system criticized for allegedly discouraging minority representation on the council.
If successful, the measure could establish councilmanic districts as soon as 1990 in Oxnard, where only three Latinos are said to have been elected to the council--despite a Latino population of 44%.
It could also block a citizens' group that announced plans Friday to launch a petition drive for a similar initiative to be placed before Oxnard voters in an April special election.
Councilwoman Dorothy Maron, who made a motion for the November referendum measure at Tuesday's City Council meeting, argued that the move would "preclude some sort of court order" forcing the establishment of districts. She pointed to a recent federal appeals court ruling that at-large elections "impermissibly diluted" the political power of Latinos in the Santa Cruz County farming town of Watsonville.
She also contended that placing the measure before voters during a regular election would ensure wider participation than in the April election, which she predicted would attract only one-fourth of all registered voters.
To include the measure on the November ballot would be "much more democratic than a special election," she said. "More people turn out for presidential elections."
But devising the referendum measure required city staff to divide the city into districts before a Wednesday-evening meeting, a feat that Councilman Michael A. Plisky argued could result in litigation over hurriedly drawn boundaries.
"We have very little time to make very significant decisions," Plisky said. "I don't think we can just jump into it and expect to do it right."
City Atty. Gary L. Gillig also warned the council that the step would probably lead to a legal battle with Ventura County election officials.
The battle would focus on the deadlines for getting referendum measures onto the November ballot.
Gillig believes that the State Election Code gives municipalities until Friday to include issues on the November ballot. However, Ruth Schepler, assistant registrar of voters for Ventura County, said the deadline was July 19, and that a complicated printing schedule will not allow for an exception.
"It's very, very difficult," she said. "A lot of people don't realize the detail we have to go into to prepare a ballot. The window is very short to get all these things done."
Including the referendum measure on the November ballot, which would save the city the expense of a special election, would also require approval by Ventura County Supervisors, who are not scheduled to meet for three weeks.
County Administrator Richard Wittenberg was pessimistic about the chances for a special meeting of the supervisors. "Frankly, I don't even know where some of them are," he said Wednesday morning. "They're on their summer vacations, and they're scattered."
Despite the council's intention, the group promoting an April districting election has no plans to abandon the petition drive it announced last Friday.
"The likelihood of the council getting anything on the ballot is nil," said Gilbert Beezley, an organizer of the Council District Initiative Committee. "This is for appearance, not substance."
The flurry of activity follows a court order forcing the farming town of Watsonville to abandon its at-large system in favor of a system that the court deemed more favorable for Latino candidates.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blamed the electoral process for low voter turnout among Latinos in Watsonville, where a Latino has not been elected to office for 15 years despite a 48.9% Latino population.
"Lower voter registration and turnout levels are indicative of lingering effects of past discrimination," Judge Dorothy W. Nelson said in the decision.
The effect of the decision on individual cities is arguable.
Gillig told the council that the Watsonville decision would not have "an immediate impact on Oxnard," saying the decision could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and that the court did not order a specific remedy, such as councilmanic districts.
Specific Ruling Lacking
"They didn't say that as a matter of law, at-large elections are illegal," he said.
In fact, the Watsonville decision did not strengthen a 1986 Supreme Court decision that set down specific standards for challenging discriminatory state and local electoral policies, said M. Carmen Ramirez, director of Channel Counties Legal Services Assn., an Oxnard-based legal aid group that has championed Latino causes in the past.
"It didn't make great new law," she said of the Watsonville case. "It's more of a political victory."
Establishing councilmanic districts--a perennial issue in Oxnard-- has long been proposed as a means of increasing representation in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Oxnard's south and east sides.