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Anaheim again balks at putting council districts on ballot

June 12, 2013|By Rick Rojas
  • Police in riot gear move through a crowd of protesters in Anaheim in July 2012.
Police in riot gear move through a crowd of protesters in Anaheim in July… (Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles…)

It's been nearly a year since officials in Anaheim -- pressured by anger and violent street protests over ethnic divisions in Orange County's largest city -- first floated a ballot measure that would alter the structure of City Council elections in an effort to diversify representation.

But on Tuesday, council members again decided to hold off on the measure  after a contentious meeting that demonstrated that, even with time, heated feelings in the city haven't diminished.

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 won council seats. The city is also one of the few large municipalities that does not have council districts.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Kris Murray argued in favor of moving forward prudently, because the measure had the potential to bring "wholesale change" to Anaheim.

But Mayor Tom Tait, who proposed and supported the measure last year amid a summer of discontent and violence, pushed 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 underrepresentation 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."

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 also among the suggestions. The city directly elects its mayor.

The discord centered on whether to switch the council's longstanding at-large setup to one that would have council members representing districts within the city.

Proponents of the council districts contend that system would encourage better political representation for poorer, predominantly Latino communities.

But those critical of the district plan suggested such zoning would further divide the city, encouraging segregation. 

"We are one city," Murray said. 

A neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of census data by The Times last year revealed the city already is deeply segregated along ethnic lines.

After the motion Tuesday 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.

Councilwoman Gail Eastman urged patience. She said she didn't understand the push by the mayor and others to hurry to approve the measure. Even if it had been approved, the soonest residents could vote on it would be a year away.

"There's a need for people to decide," she said, adding, "The last thing I want to do is rush to put something on the ballot that is destined to fail."


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