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Ex-Council Candidates Tout District Election Initiative

June 29, 1989|SANTIAGO O'DONNELL | Times Staff Writer

Buoyed by a recent court ruling aimed at increasing minority representation in city governments, a newly formed group of unsuccessful City Council candidates is trying to organize a ballot initiative calling for district elections in Glendale in 1990.

The group's members, who met Tuesday, say the initiative, if successful, would prevent the city from being sued by Latinos claiming that they are denied representation by Glendale's at-large elections. District elections are more likely to produce minority council members because members of minority groups tend to live in the same parts of the city.

City Council members counter that the measure is an ill-conceived attempt by power-hungry politicians with no interest in the local Latino community.

At the core of the dispute is a year-old federal court decision that forced the city of Watsonville in Central California to switch to district elections to increase its minority representation.

In Texas, about 100 cities have been forced or have agreed in recent years to make the transition from at-large to district elections because of lawsuits brought under the federal Voting Rights Act. As a result, minorities, especially Latinos, are better represented in city governments.

The Watsonville decision by the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals brought the Texas rules into California and nine other Western states covered by the federal court.

A survey conducted for the plaintiffs in the Watsonville case by the San Francisco law firm of Howard & Rosen showed that Glendale was among 130 Californian cities that may be required to change their election methods.

17% Hispanic

Each of these cities, the survey shows, has an at-large electoral system and a Latino population exceeding 10%. The 1980 census showed that 17% of Glendale's population is Hispanic.

"Glendale's a good target," said attorney Joaquin Avila, who represented the plaintiffs in the Watsonville case. "We will have to look at the statistics."

Avila said federal law requires district elections where there has been "a history of exclusion" against minority candidates or candidates favored by minority groups. He said plaintiffs need not prove that the exclusion was intentional, just that it existed.

In past years, several candidates who have championed the city's less-affluent, ethnically mixed and traditionally under-represented neighborhoods south of the Ventura Freeway have unsuccessfully run for the Glendale City Council.

Voter turnout in south Glendale is about half that in wealthier, predominantly white north Glendale, where well-organized homeowner associations are highly successful at turning out voters, usually overwhelmingly in favor of the incumbents.

All present council members live in north Glendale, as have members of at least the past three councils.

But south Glendale candidates have not fared well even in their own precincts. In the April election, for example, only one of the two south Glendale candidates won one of the city's 16 southern precincts; the other 15 were won by north Glendale candidates.

Robin Westmiller, a leading promoter of the district election proposal, finished sixth in her own south Glendale precinct and fared no better elsewhere in the city.

Westmiller and three other unsuccessful candidates in this year's election organized the Coalition for Electoral Reform, which calls for district elections, moving elections from April to November, and requiring at least a 50% majority vote for election rather than a plurality.

"Districting is the plan of the future with the Watsonville decision making it a mandatory procedure for some cities, possibly Glendale," said coalition spokesman Dick Seeley, another ex-candidate from the Montrose annex in north Glendale.

Improve Accountability

"We think Glendale can reflect its progressiveness by doing what's representative and democratic without the necessity of a lawsuit or mandatory legislation from Sacramento," he said. He added that districting would improve accountability and access to council members.

While California's larger cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have district elections, more than 400 of the state's 450 cities hold at-large elections. Minority challenges to those practices are pending in such cities as San Diego, Stockton, Chula Vista and National City.

To place the districting proposal on the November ballot, the Glendale coalition will have to collect about 10,000 signatures--15% of the city's registered voters--in 180 days. Seeley said the coalition will begin gathering signatures in mid-July.

He said moving the elections to November would double voter turnout, offsetting the incumbents' use of homeowners associations as political machines.

Top Vote-Getter

Seeley said a runoff system would enhance the chances of challengers. In April, 10 unsuccessful challengers divided 52% of what they believed to be a strong protest vote against the incumbents. Then-Mayor Carl Raggio, the top vote-getter, had 18.5%.

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