Anaheim council member Harry Sidhu, Mayor Tom Tait, council members Lorri… (Los Angeles Times )
Jim Newton's assertion in his column Monday that members of the Anaheim City Council acted in their own self-interest in voting down a proposed ballot measure to create voting districts is false. Over the past several weeks, there has been a very public dialogue questioning how Anaheim is governed and whether the current system, in which all four council members and the mayor are elected at-large, should be changed. Newton's column echoes the sensational news reports on the Aug. 8 special meeting that the council's rejection of the plan amounted to some kind of power grab by entrenched incumbents who wanted to keep their jobs.
In reality, what went on was much more complex.
In June, the city was sued by the ACLU, which claimed that Anaheim's at-large voting system marginalizes the city's Latino majority and is not in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act. The city was in the process of responding to that litigation when the officer-involved shootings of two suspected gang members in July ignited the recent unrest in our streets.
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There are still many questions to be answered surrounding those shootings, and several independent investigations are already underway to do so. Although some have asserted that there may be a correlation between the two issues, the city would be irresponsible to undertake wholesale change of its entire electoral system without first providing an opportunity for extensive citizen dialogue, careful legal analysis and consideration of the options available to meet voters’ concerns for fair representation.
Following the lengthy special meeting Aug. 8, the council's 3-2 majority found that the ballot initiative proposed by the mayor was deeply flawed and that rushing a single option to the November ballot and giving voters fewer than three months to make their decision was simply not fair.
Mayor Tom Tait's initial proposal called for four districts and a mayor elected at-large. But the day before our meeting, he changed his proposal to six districts and a mayor. At the Aug. 8 meeting, members of the public in attendance wanted eight districts. The mayor's plan was one of many; approving it for the ballot would have excluded all other options and voices in our community. These decisions must not be taken lightly, and I cannot support rushing one of the City Charter amendments onto the ballot when there are other choices that deserve careful consideration.
Instead, the council approved the establishment of the Citizens Committee for Elections and Community Involvement in Anaheim to engage residents in a discussion. It will consider all possibilities and make a recommendation that will have passed careful public scrutiny. Districts sometimes achieve the goals that Anaheim is setting out to (the Madera Unified School District is one example), but sometimes they do not (such as the city of Modesto). Other options include "cumulative voting" -- which allows voters to select more than one choice in contests with multiple seats and was suggested as a possibility for Anaheim by one of the authors of the California Voting Rights Act -- and the "residency-based districts" system used in Newport Beach and Santa Ana, where each council member must live in a given district but all residents continue to cast votes for all members of the council.
The point is that Anaheim should do its research, hear from members of many ethnic groups and engage the residents in crafting a proposal to change the city's government before asking them for their yes-or-no votes on a single plan. It beats going forward with a proposal by a single City Council member with zero public input.
Some have expressed skepticism that the Citizens’ Committee will do little more than study the issue and effectively kill any chance for change before 2014. The skepticism is misplaced. The committee is set to form immediately and its recommendations could be before Anaheim voters in time to ensure any changes are in place for the 2014 election. The mayor's initiative would not have brought change to Anaheim any faster.
The Anaheim City Council is equally committed to full electoral participation and addressing the tragic events of the last few months. But we must be willing to work together to unite Anaheim again. Changing the way Anaheim elects its leaders demands careful consideration of the issues before us, with all diverse parts of the community participating. As I have said all along: If we are going to make significant change to how the residents of Anaheim are governed, engaging the people of Anaheim first before any option goes before the voters is the right thing to do.
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Kris Murray is a member of the Anaheim City Council.
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