Whittier City Council members said they didn't want to cut the city into council election districts, but decided Tuesday to place the decision in voters' hands to avoid a costly legal battle.
Three Whittier residents had sued the city to overturn its at-large elections, in which voters throughout the city select all council members.
They said the at-large system diluted Latino voting power and prevented them from electing candidates of their choice. The lawsuit claims the at-large system violated the California Voting Rights Act, a 2002 law which requires local governments to create voting districts if at-large voting results in racially polarized voting patterns.
After four hours of public comment and discussion, the Whittier City Council unanimously decided to put a district plan before voters on the June 2014 ballot.
The plan would amend the city charter to divide the city into four council districts, with residents of each district electing a council member to serve four years. In addition, voters throughout the city would choose a mayor every two years.
Members of the Whittier Latino Coalition, which sponsored the lawsuit, said they preferred an alternate plan with five council districts, each chosen by district residents, with the mayor title rotating among the council members.
Plaintiff Manuel Garcia said they were disappointed the council did not put the charter amendment vote on an earlier ballot. If it passes in June, the earliest council members would run in the newly formed districts is 2016. The plaintiffs also wanted the city's elections moved from their traditional April dates to June or November, when voter turnout might be higher.
The council members complained they were acting under economic pressure because the California Voting Rights Act requires the city to pay plaintiffs' costs if the city loses the case.
"We've got to get the city of Whittier out of the way of the cross-hairs of this gun that has been pointed at us," Mayor Bob Henderson said.
Some speakers who wanted districts said the council was out of touch with the Latino majority of the city.
Henderson, who has been on the council for several decades, responded: "It comes close to racism when you tell us that we are too old, and too white."
He also questioned whether council districts would result in Latinos winning seats on the council.