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Voting-Rights Suit Aims to Halt Santa Ana's 'Poll' on Barriers

ACLU says the city is holding an election that is unfair to people in multifamily dwellings.

July 24, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against three Santa Ana officials Wednesday, alleging that a neighborhood election usurps the voting rights of residents of large apartment complexes by not allowing them a say on whether the city should install traffic barriers along a busy street.

The city says the election is just a nonbinding poll, so no election rights were violated.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, charges that the election involving 347 mail-in ballots violates the U.S. Constitution's one-person, one-vote rule because only one vote was given to all of the residents of any multiple-family dwelling with more than four units.

The lawsuit alleges that the election favors French Park, a community of single-family homes on one side of the barriers, over French Court, made up mostly of Latino apartment dwellers on the other.

The ACLU has asked the court to stop the voting, scheduled to end Friday. The civil liberties group argues that 82% of the French Park households received a ballot compared with 11% of the French Court households, because many are multiple-family dwellings with more than four units.

In those complexes, the ballots went to landlords or association boards.

French Park residents say the barriers reduce north-south commuter traffic, but the apartment dwellers in adjacent French Court say they limit police access and make it difficult to leave the neighborhood.

Apartment dwellers say the election regulations cut them out of the decision-making process.

City officials "have gone through a process that is unconstitutional.... It completely disenfranchises people who are affected," said ACLU managing attorney Peter Elaisberg.

The barriers were installed on Spurgeon and French streets and Washington Avenue after a similar poll in 2000 even though police and school officials said they posed public safety risks. The idea was to have a City Council panel monitor traffic, then take another poll to determine whether the barriers should remain.

But some residents felt that process excluded them.

"We've been looking for a way to fight the city. The city has been warned over and over again that this is illegal," said Kim Gerda, co-chairperson of the parents' group Children Learning at Safe Schools, who sought help from the ACLU.

"People have just assumed that because the city sets up an election this way, it's legal."

The lawsuit names Mayor Miguel A. Pulido, Public Works Agency Director James G. Ross and John Castillo, chairman of a City Council traffic committee, as defendants.

The ACLU alleges that the way the voting is set up violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, often known as "the one person, one vote rule." That measure allows a government to restrict voting only on the basis of age, citizenship and residency within "relevant geographic boundaries unless it can show that other restrictions are necessary to achieve a compelling state interest."

"There are exceptions, for water districts, for special assessment districts" to one man, one vote, said Loyola Law School professor Richard L. Hasen. "It is not clear to me if this fits the pattern of the exceptions."

City Atty. Joseph Fletcher said Santa Ana is not required to conduct an election but chose to poll residents as other neighborhoods have done.

The ACLU's "argument is that it is an election once you invoke an election process. We believe it is a polling. The purpose of this balloting is ... to ask, 'What do you think?' "

The polling system for barricades was set up about eight years ago by the City Council and has been used at least twice, said City Manager Dave Ream.

"We want to see how the community feels without having it skewed by one or two large [apartment complexes]. That is why it is set up the way it is," he said.

One of the two resident plaintiffs, Wade Little, a French Court condominium resident, disagrees. City officials "railroaded this whole project in favor of the French Park people," he said.

"If someone asked me if I am a stakeholder in this community I would say, yes. I own property and pay taxes. Then I would ask, 'Why can't I vote?' "

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