POMONA — The question of whether City Council members should be elected by districts or at-large, which has been debated in the courts for years, will not be decided in the voting booths anytime soon.
Early Tuesday morning, the City Council voted, 3 to 2, to pull from the March ballot a referendum that would have allowed voters to choose between the current at-large system of electing council members--which some say discriminates against minorities--and voting by district.
The council had voted 3 to 1 on Sept. 19 in favor of Councilwoman Nell Soto's motion to place the measure before the voters. The decision was cheered by a large, vociferous crowd that included officials of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
Although the city's population is 30% Latino and 19% black, only three members of either ethnic minority groups have ever been elected to the council. Soto, a Latina who was elected in 1987, is currently the only minority council member.
The issue of district elections has been a divisive one in Pomona since 1985, when the Southwest Voter Rights Education Project sued the city on behalf of three black and two Latino residents who had lost bids for the council or managed unsuccessful campaigns. The suit sought to force the city to adopt district elections.
A federal judge ruled in Pomona's favor in 1986 and the San Antonio-based voter rights group filed an appeal. But last summer the group won a similar suit against the city of Watsonville in a verdict that was expected to have repercussions in cities with at-large elections and large minority populations, such as Pomona.
In calling for the ballot measure, Soto cited the Watsonville decision, adding, "It would be in the best interests of Pomona to do it ourselves, rather than have the court tell us what to do."
But Councilman Mark Nymeyer, who was absent when the council passed Soto's motion, said this week that a ballot measure on district elections could prove to be an expensive proposition for the city.
Warning on Fees
Nymeyer noted that in a confidential letter to the city, attorney John E. McDermott had warned that a judge could order Pomona to pay attorneys fees for the plaintiff if it appears district elections were implemented in response to the lawsuit.
After voters in Pasadena enacted district elections in 1980, a judge ordered the city to pay $250,000 for attorneys fees to the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups that had sued the city in 1979.
McDermott's letter contradicted the advice given in September by City Atty. Patrick Sampson, who had said it was "highly improbable" that Pomona would be held liable for the plaintiffs' attorney fees as was Pasadena. However, Nymeyer said it would be foolish for the city to take such a risk.
"I think it's irresponsible to put district elections on the ballot until the lawsuit is resolved," said Nymeyer, who is opposed to changing the city's election system. "Everybody knows how I feel about district elections, but that's not why I'm bringing this up."
Nymeyer's proposal was endorsed by Mayor Donna Smith, who had voted against Soto's measure, and Councilman E. J. (Jay) Gaulding, a longtime supporter of district elections who said he changed his mind on the referendum after reading the attorney's letter.
The council's reversal prompted an angry response from Soto.
"I'm disappointed in the fact that we vote on something on the City Council and a few weeks later . . . somebody changes their mind," Soto told the rest of the council. "People were cheering in this council because we were going to let them vote on district elections, and now they're going to have another disappointment."
Interviewed after the meeting, Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant expressed disgust over the council vote.
"I think it was sleazy," he said. "I think it was bad faith on the part of those people. After they had made a vote with a full house, they do this (Monday) night when there's nobody there."
Gaulding said that Bryant's charge was "a supposition that has no merit."
When given the choice in November, 1972, Pomona voters rejected district elections, with 13,701 voting against the proposal and 11,891 favoring it.
Sampson said the council's decision to withdraw the referendum may not delay the implementation of district elections, since a new voting system would not have been used before March, 1991, if approved by the voters next year.
Bryant complained that it was still unfair to voters to take the referendum off the ballot, proclaiming, "Justice delayed is justice denied."
Nymeyer responded: "In this case, justice delayed prevents the public from paying someone else's legal bills. And that's justice indeed."