POMONA — After spending more than $1 million to successfully defend its system of electing council members at large, the city of Pomona is going to ask voters whether they want to change the system anyway.
The council voted unanimously this week to put the issue of electing council members by district on the next municipal election ballot. The next regularly scheduled city election is in 1991, but a vote could be held earlier if a group circulating petitions to recall Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant succeeds in obtaining a recall election.
The Southwest Voter Rights Education Project filed a lawsuit against the city in 1985 on behalf of five Pomona residents who claimed the at-large system discriminated against minorities by depriving them of representation.
The city incurred more than $1 million in legal expenses and finally prevailed in federal court, first at trial and then on appeal.
Bryant said district elections would give minorities--who compose more than half the city's population--a better chance of winning office. The council has two Latino members but has never had a black member despite black residents' constituting an estimated 19% of the population.
Under the current system, Pomona voters choose a mayor and four council members in a citywide vote. The city is divided into four council districts, and candidates are required to run within their home districts, but the vote is citywide.
Bryant said that by adopting a system that would let each district choose its own council member, the city would make it cheaper and easier for candidates to run.
The current system, he said, has failed to produce council members who reflect the city's diversity.
"Because of the influence of money, the press or a strong voting bloc, Pomona has been deprived of the cultural representation which should have long ago been evident in our daily lives," he declared in a written statement. "District elections would provide our people with a proximate choice, allow greater participation at less expense and buttress the principle of home rule."
Councilman Tom Ursua, who was one of the plaintiffs in the 1985 suit before being elected to the council last April, said district elections would increase participation and voter interest.
Mayor Donna Smith said voters should be given the chance to decide the issue, but she favors citywide elections.
"I enjoy my right to be able to vote for everyone," she said, adding that she believes that other voters also will want to retain a say in the composition of the whole council rather than vote for a single representative.
If council members were chosen by district, she said, they could become preoccupied with fighting for special benefits for their neighborhoods instead of being concerned with the interests of the city as a whole.
She said that one compromise the city could consider would be to enlarge the council, electing three members by district and three at large. The council would then consist of a mayor elected citywide and six council members.
Another possibility, suggested by Councilwoman Nell Soto, would be to abolish the elected office of mayor and have the position rotate among council members.
Soto said the important thing is to submit the matter to voters.
"It's high time," she said. "I've been talking about this for two years now. Putting this on the ballot will give the electorate an opportunity to decide how the city should be governed."