Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait urges quiet from the crowd as council member Lorri… (Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles…)
Almost a year after Orange County's largest city was rocked by street protests, civic leaders again have decided to hold off asking voters whether the structure of future council elections should be altered in an effort to diversify representation.
Anaheim has seen a dramatic ethnic shift in recent years, and now about 52% of the city's 336,000 residents are Latino, though only a few Latinos have ever won council seats. The city is the largest municipality in California without council districts.
On Tuesday, after months had passed and with a smaller but boisterous crowd in attendance, , the discussion in the council chamber was virtually the same as last year. It was a clear demonstration that, even with time, heated feelings in this city haven't diminished.
The council again voted down, 3-2, a measure that would have put the decision on districts before voters, opting instead for more study and a second proposal.
"If we want to take a ballot measure forward that changes how we govern," said Councilwoman Kris Murray, "I think the most education and the most engagement of our residents is essential to it being successful."
After the motion to proceed with the ballot measure failed, Murray raised a motion of her own, one that would examine adding two more council members and a structure that would continue with at-large elections but would have residency requirements mandating that candidates live in certain sections of the city. That proposal passed on a 4-1 vote.
A neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of census data by The Times last year revealed the city is deeply segregated along ethnic lines, with many of its elected leaders coming from predominantly white neighborhoods in the eastern hills of the community.
The renewed discussion was prompted by the findings of a panel asked to study the issue last year.
After months of meetings and debate, the panel didn't conclude the assignment with complete agreement, but they did unanimously support a ballot measure. Expanding the four-member council to either six or eight members was among the suggestions. The city directly elects its mayor.
Mayor Tom Tait, who supported the measure last year, pushed again for it to be approved immediately, citing mounting legal bills — nearing a half-million dollars — in the city's fight against a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union charging under-representation of Latinos.
"It's simple," Tait said. "Ask the people! It's their city, it's their government. The charter requires we ask them, so let's ask them."
Tuesday's meeting highlighted the discord that rankles the city. Between the council and the crowd, plenty of accusations were lobbed at each other: corruption, intimidation, lies.
When Councilwoman Gail Eastman asked for the mayor to keep the crowd from making noise during the hearing, she was drowned out by booes. She walked out of the room and didn't return for several minutes.
"Every person who didn't speak in support of the option that is before us right now was ridiculed tonight," Murray said. "And many of you are even out there ridiculing me right now for even having the discussion. I think we're at risk in Anaheim of ... devolving to where we can't agree to disagree respectfully."
At the core of the disagreement was whether to eliminate the council's long-standing at-large voting.
Those critical of the district plan suggested such zoning would further divide the city. They also argued that an at-large system allowed residents to have more than one person to reach out to.
"I'm represented by five people, not one," said Ron Bengochea, 66, a retired pipefitter, who still wanted a ballot measure despite hoping to keep the at-large setup.
Proponents of the council districts contend that system would encourage better political representation for poorer, predominantly Latino communities. The city's central core, an area dominated by barrios and dense apartment complexes, is nearly 70% Latino. But none of the current council members live directly in that area.
Dr. America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access, said she lives in Anaheim Hills but spends time in the city's central core as part of her work. She told the council she had witnessed the disparities in the city. In her neighborhood, parks, libraries and community centers were within walking distance of her home; in other areas, there was no such access.
"There's a moral imperative to let the people of Anaheim choose," she said. "Privileged people receive benefits, and we want everyone to be privileged."