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Ruling Upheld on Pomona Elections : Appeals Court Backs Decision That System Doesn't Dilute Minority Vote

August 27, 1989|IRENE CHANG | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court has upheld a district judge's ruling that Pomona's at-large election system doesn't discriminate against blacks and Latinos.

The court upheld U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman's decision that the plaintiffs in the case failed to meet standards established in a U.S. Supreme Court decision as necessary to prove an at-large system dilutes the minority vote.

The suit, filed in 1985 by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, alleged at-large elections for the city's five council seats prevented minority candidates from winning. A federal court judge ruled for the city in 1986, and the civil rights groups appealed the decision.

Tomas Ursua, who was elected to the council in March but lost a council election in 1985, was one of three unsuccessful candidates who sued.

Plaintiffs in the case said they were "shocked" and "surprised" by the ruling Thursday. They said they won't know what further action they will take until they see the court's opinion.

Andrew Hernandez, president of the San Antonio group, said the ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is "ironic in light of the Watsonville case" and ignores "the fact that there is a history of discrimination and a polarized vote. Minorities have a difficult time at the local level." The Latino community in the city of Watsonville, Calif., recently won a case in which they alleged at-large elections shut them out of city government.

But the court held that the Pomona plaintiffs had not demonstrated that minorities were politically cohesive and sufficiently concentrated so that minority districts could be drawn or that an Anglo voting bloc had consistently defeated minority candidates, criteria established by the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Thornburg vs. Gingles.

Minorities constitute about half of Pomona's 120,000 population. In the city's 101-year history, no blacks and only four Latinos have been elected to the City Council. Two of the Latinos, Ursua and Nell Soto, are on the council now. Neither was available for comment immediately after the decision.

In the past, the two have said a large turnout by the city's black and Latino voters made their victories possible. But, said MALDEF attorney Richard Larson, the "occasional election of minorities in at-large elections does not detract from the fact that at-large violates a fair voting system."

He added that if the city switched to district elections, there would be enough Latinos to fill two districts.

Pomona Deputy District Atty. Bill Curley lauded the court's decision, saying it proves that "at this point we can assume we've got a non-discriminatory system." But he conceded that with Pomona's large minority population, districts "certainly could be crafted to ensure minority representation," and that the City Council had discussed changing the elections process.

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