Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford is the only City Council member from the east side of town, home to three-quarters of the population and growing numbers of minorities. The rest of the five-member council lives in the richer, whiter neighborhoods west of the Antelope Valley Freeway.
In an effort to spread the political power around, Ledford is backing a Nov. 6 ballot measure that would require future council members to live in newly drawn districts--three of which would be on the east side.
"With a city of 102 square miles, 75% of the city's got me to represent them," Ledford said. "I've always thought districting would give us a way to bring new people into the decision-making process."
Since the 1970s, at least 15 California cities have abandoned their at-large election systems for district representation, often to reflect increasing diversity among voters. But the switch has rarely been an easy sell.
In Palmdale, opponents say the ballot measure would only bring big-city schisms and corruption, the same argument that helped thwart election-by-district plans in cities such as Glendale and Burbank.
Palmdale Councilman Rick Norris cites Los Angeles. Council districts there, he said, have become "little fiefdoms."
"They end up cutting deals, and having all of this political back-room maneuvering," said Norris, one of three candidates challenging Ledford in the Nov. 6 mayoral election.
If the voters embrace Ledford's proposal, Palmdale would join Long Beach, Berkeley, San Diego, San Jose and Stockton, all of which adopted districting in the last three decades. In the 1980s, voting-rights lawsuits that alleged at-large elections discriminated against minorities prompted Salinas and Watsonville to establish districts.
Most Cities Hold At-Large Elections
And while most cities in the state still elect at-large councils, many continue to study the district approach as growing ethnic populations demand more political power.
"There has been a trend toward districting, particularly in the larger and mid-sized cities [nationwide]," UC Berkeley government professor Bruce Cain said. "People have felt that as cities became more diverse, you wanted to avoid the situation where all these [council members] would come from one neighborhood. Because whatever they were doing wouldn't be deemed legitimate."
That's the contention of 11-year council veteran Ledford, a Republican who is considered a moderate in a town that tilts to the right. Ledford, 48, stresses race isn't the main reason he wrote the measure, but he says districting might give new voice to the city's minority neighborhoods.
In the last decade, Palmdale's black population has nearly tripled and its Latino population doubled. Today, according to census figures, Latinos constitute 37.7% of the city's 116,000 residents; blacks account for 14.5%.
"If you look at the makeup of our city, clearly we're not all white males, and that's what our board is," Ledford said. "We're diverse as a city. There should be a better reflection on our council."
Although Ledford's plan would split the city into four districts by 2003, all voters would choose council members from every district. The mayor, who sits on the council as the fifth member, would still be elected citywide. Some opponents say this hybrid system is too awkward and would perpetuate underrepresented neighborhoods.
"I don't support it because it's still at-large," said east side resident Celeste Eckley, an African American running for one of two council seats in next month's balloting. "When you [do away with] that, then you'll have true representation of the people."
Rick Cole, a former Pasadena mayor, saw that city change to a district election system in 1980. He said that if Ledford's idea is accepted, it would probably be the first step toward eliminating at-large voting altogether.
"Basic American fairness is going to kick in and voters are going to say, 'This guy represents me, but somebody else gets to vote for him? That's screwy.' "
Struggling with dramatic changes in the city's racial makeup and facing a federal voting-rights lawsuit, Pasadena voters approved a ballot measure in 1980 that replaced a system similar in part to Ledford's plan with one in which council members are elected solely within districts, Cole said.
The change has put more minorities on the Pasadena council, Cole said. But he said it also fostered constituencies that were hyper-parochial--something he cautioned Palmdale to be wary of.
"If you've got 500 homeowners behind you, you can serve for life," Cole said. "You can be on the City Council dealing with a $300-million budget with 500 votes."
Candidates Agree East Side Neglected
Under Palmdale's current system, minority candidates such as Richard Loa, a Latino running for council, must appeal to the broadest possible base. "I'm not running as a Hispanic," Loa said. "I'm running as a citizen of Palmdale."