A citizens group in Oxnard has failed to gather enough signatures to challenge the city's at-large election system, which has been criticized for allegedly discouraging minority representation on the Oxnard City Council, the group's leader said this week.
Gilbert G. Beezley, an Oxnard paralegal who had headed the Council District Initiative Committee, said the group had only gathered about 3,000 signatures in support of a ballot measure to carve the city into six council districts.
The group had to gather about 7,300 signatures to qualify the measure for placement on the ballot. An election could have been held as soon as September, City Clerk Mabi Plisky said.
"We came close but not close enough," Beezley said.
If successful, the ballot measure gradually would have replaced all of Oxnard's four council members, who live in the same predominantly white upscale neighborhood, with six council members from districts of about equal populations throughout the city.
The committee had argued that the change was necessary to represent the city's large Latino population. Only three Latinos are known to have been elected to the council, although Latinos make up 44% of the city's population.
Beezley said the committee itself was partially to blame for the defeat.
"We had more talkers than doers," he said.
He also blamed "an undercurrent of negative opposition" generated by "incumbents on the council and their political sponsors who went out of their way to discourage support for the measure."
In particular, he cited a comment by council member Dorothy Maron, who early in the petition drive described it as "a recall drive," a comment Maron doesn't deny.
"If you read his initiative, all four councilmen go off the council pretty quick so you have all new people on," she said. "Isn't that a recall?"
But she denied encouraging "any organized or disorganized opposition" to the measure.
However, some Latinos had questioned the effectiveness of the measure, pointing to the fact that it would have lumped Oxnard's barrio, La Colonia, with a more affluent, northern section of the city, instead of a heavily minority neighborhood to the south.
Goal Not Achieved
"I don't think the way the districts were structured would have accomplished the goal of enhancing the possibility of enhancing the abilities of having minorities elected," Councilman Manuel Lopez said.
And the Concilio, an umbrella group of service organizations that help the county's Latino population, did not support the measure, choosing instead to sink its energies into an exhaustive study of the city's voting patterns that will be completed this summer, said Marcos Vargas, the group's executive director.
Beezley said the group may launch another petition drive or challenge Oxnard's at-large system in court, based on a federal decision in July to force the largely Latino farming town of Watsonville in California to abandon its at-large system in favor of a system deemed more favorable to minority candidates.
"The movement isn't dead," he said, "even though the petition drive may be."
In the heavily Latino Santa Clara Valley, two movements are astir to do what activists in Oxnard could not.
Former Fillmore Mayor Ernie Morales said he has been meeting with about a dozen other Latino leaders in preparation for proposing a districting plan to city officials this summer.
Fillmore, which is 50% to 55% Latino, has had only two Latino council members in its 75-year history. The three Latinos who ran for council seats in November, including Morales, were defeated.
"It just seemed to me that we were being excluded from being part of the democratic process," Morales, who served on the council from 1968 to 1984, said of the last election. "I don't think that's right."
In Santa Paula, which is also more than half Latino, some leaders have been giving "real serious consideration" to a districting plan, said Jim Tovias, president of the Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce.
As in Fillmore, however, Tovias said that discussion was still in the preliminary stages and that neither voting patterns nor potential district boundaries had been closely studied yet.
Although city officials in those communities have expressed a willingness to consider such plans, many are skeptical that carving up their cities into small districts would enhance Latino representation.
"In a large town it might be a good idea, because what you're really doing is making small communities," Fillmore Councilman Roger Campbell said. "But we have a small community to start with. I don't think you need to break it up any smaller than it is to get fair representation."
Times staff writer Jesse Katz also contributed to this story.