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Slapped with lawsuit, Whittier agrees to consider election changes

August 14, 2013|By Jean Merl

A week after activists filed a lawsuit over Whittier's handling of its municipal elections, officials have decided to reconsider the method used to choose city council members.

In a news release, city officials said they would discuss the matter of district-based elections during the city council's Aug. 27 meeting. Supporters of the lawsuit, however, said they remain skeptical of the city officials' sincerity.

"The Whittier City Council has been analyzing our city elections process, trying to discern the best way for all our residents' voices to be heard on election day," Mayor Bob Henderson said in the release issued Tuesday evening.

The deliberations, he added, "have led to a decision to review the issue of district elections at our next council meeting. The council will consider placing a measure on the ballot amending the city charter that would allow citizens to vote to determine how future elections will be held" in the city.

Last week, three members of the Whittier Latino Coalition, which has been urging officials to abandon at-large elections and switch to a district-based model, filed suit accusing Whittier of violating the California Voter Rights Act. 

Louis R. Reyes, a coalition spokesman, said Wednesday the group welcomes the chance to participate in the review process but is not optimistic.

On one hand, Reyes said, the coalition believes "this is a positive step forward in a transparent process, and we encourage the city council to create specific districts with input from the communities on the boundaries."

"We'll look at this process and be involved, but we are somewhat suspect of it" given that it came on the heels of a lawsuit, Reyes said.

Rod Pacheco, a former state legislator who is one of two attorneys handling the suit, said he believes the city is playing "a little game" by "pretending to solve the problem" while keeping the current system in place as long as possible.

"I hope they prove me wrong," Pacheco said. "I hope they say they are going to district elections."

Whittier, along with several other Southern California cities with substantial minority populations and a system of electing council members at-large instead of by districts, have been under pressure from civil rights groups. They say the at-large elections deny minorities the opportunity -- and their legal right -- to elect a council member of their choice and help ensure that the seats go to members of the established political order despite changing demographics.

Anaheim and Palmdale are among the area cities whose at-large elections system are under attack in the courts and elsewhere. Lawsuits by separate groups have been filed against each of these cities. 

A judge has ruled that Palmdale is in violation of the voting rights law and Anaheim recently angered activists by refusing to give up its at-large election system, requiring only that candidates live in specific districts but still face a citywide electorate.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeanmerl

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