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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

U.S. Lawsuit Highlights Race in Council Race

November 03, 2000|GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA PAULA — Tuesday's election comes at a crucial time in Santa Paula. The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that the city's Latino vote is unfairly diluted and that candidates supported by a majority of Latinos cannot get elected to the City Council.

Vying for two open seats are incumbent Jim Garfield and challengers Alfonso A. Guilin, Ray Luna and John Procter.

If elected, Guilin and Luna would join Laura Flores Espinosa to give the council its first Latino majority, but some Latino activists say Luna doesn't necessarily agree with their views.

Opinion is divided among the candidates, as well as some members of the City Council, on whether the city should negotiate a settlement or fight the potentially costly lawsuit filed by the federal government in April.

The election's outcome, said Espinosa, could affect the council's future actions.

"It is one of the most far-reaching decisions that any council will make," she said.

It is also an opportunity for this city of 27,000 to perhaps prove--at least symbolically--the allegations wrong.

The suit argues that the city's at-large voting system, which in concept allows five candidates who live on the same street to represent an entire city, perpetuates discrimination against Latinos and violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

If a judge agrees with federal lawyers, the 4.5-square-mile city could be required to carve itself into five districts, two of which would have Latino majorities. Voters from each district would elect one council member. The cash-strapped city has budgeted $350,000 this year to fight the suit.

Thus the timing of this City Council race, with two Latinos out of four candidates, couldn't be more ironic. Only Espinosa out of the city's five council members is Latino, and in the city's history no more than two Latinos have served simultaneously, although Latinos are two-thirds of Santa Paula's population.

If Luna and Guilin win, the election could tip Latinos to a precedent-setting majority on the five-member panel.

However the lawsuit contends not so much that Latinos cannot get elected to the council, but that the candidates most Latinos prefer aren't voted in.

In addition, the suit charges that plans to triple the city's size by annexing canyons to build luxury homes would only further dilute Latino voting power by increasing the proportion of whites living in the city.

Measure I, a slow-growth ballot initiative before Santa Paula voters on Tuesday, could block those plans.

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Three of the candidates, including Garfield, see development of the canyons as a way to improve the entire city.

Garfield, a real estate broker, opposes Measure I, saying planning should be done by the city's elected officials. But he still wants to boost the city's sagging economy by developing Adams Canyon with housing, two golf courses and a 300- to 400-room resort, which he estimates would bring $1 million annually in bed taxes to the city. That would generate income to improve lower-income areas of the city, he said.

"I don't want this valley floor full of housing," Garfield said. "I want it left 'ag' as long as humanly possible. That's why I'm a big fan of building in the canyons."

Guilin, a retired executive with the Limoneira lemon packing company, also opposes Measure I, saying it piles an extra level of planning on the city's decision-making process. He is not opposed to development of Adams Canyon but wants to build from the city center outward, and not "leapfrog" to the canyons first.

Luna also opposes Measure I, saying elected officials should handle planning decisions. The Ventura city firefighter wants developers proposing projects in Adams Canyon to deliver scale models and a fiscal analysis to prove it won't burden taxpayers.

Conversely, Procter supports Measure I and opposes development in Adams Canyon, which he calls a move by the City Council to "reinvent" Santa Paula as a country club.

He is running for council mainly because he opposes the project.

"It got me inspired, sort of raised my ire," said Procter, an electrician.

Procter hopes the question of developing the canyons raises the ire of voters and draws them to the polls.

"If it passes or fails, whatever, what it has really done is raise the level of awareness of development in Santa Paula," he said.

But most of the attention in this election centers on the federal lawsuit. Espinosa, along with Mike Miller, a local community activist and a leading backer of Measure I, say most Latino voters are leaning toward Guilin, 62, and Procter, 48, and that if they win, that might prove Latinos' preferred candidates can indeed get elected.

"Some of the highly respected Latinos have gotten behind John because they see him as someone who represents the broader interests of the town," Miller said. He sees those interests as improving the city's infrastructure and inner core before building in the canyons.

Latinos, Miller said, support Guilin for similar reasons.

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