Politics

Arcadia among latest to switch to council district elections but not everyone's happy

Zig Jiang and Tony Xu are part of a Chinese-American organization that threatened a lawsuit if Arcadia didn't shift from an at-large to a district election system.
Zig Jiang and Tony Xu are part of a Chinese-American organization that threatened a lawsuit if Arcadia didn't shift from an at-large to a district election system.

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Arcadia is holding a public hearing Tuesday night to begin drawing up districts for its five-member City Council after a threatened lawsuit forced a change from all voters electing all council members.

Moving from at-large voting to individual council member districts hasn't been an easy one for Arcadia. Several council members opposed the change, resisting the move even after the Chinese-American Equalization Association said it would sue if the council didn't allow district elections.

Then came the threat of a lawsuit from Kevin Shenkman, the Malibu lawyer who has gone after multiple cities under the California Voting Rights Act to get them to change their method of elections.

Some cities have resisted, but it's been costly for taxpayers.

"If you fight to the end, if you fight to your dying breath, what happens is what happened to Palmdale. They spent over $7 million dollars in the end. And they ended up with district elections anyways," Shenkman said.

His aggressive actions angered some of Arcadia's council members.

"This guy is really a scam man. He's sending letters and he's got us to a point where we have to make critical decisions even if they go against our history," said Councilman Roger Chandler.

But the city already has to pay Shenkman $30,000 to reimburse him for his work, and if they don't switch to districts, they'll have to pay more. 

"I don’t want to spend a lot of money with a small chance to win," Chandler said. 

Mayor Peter Amundson, also a councilman, said he was afraid of how districts might divide the City Council.

"I'm concerned if you have council people who are elected from a certain area of the city that they're going to be concerned only about a certain area of the city," he said. 

But faced with the financial cost of fighting a lawsuit it would likely lose, Arcadia's council agreed to take steps to draw up individual districts. 

At a busy Chinese restaurant in Arcadia last week, Zig Jiang ordered dim sum and talked about the change coming to the council elections. It was a Chinese-American organization he belongs to that first threatened to sue the city.

Jiang said there’s a similarity between politics and food — what you know is often tied to your culture.

"Just like eating Chinese food. Only Chinese know how to eat their own food," he said. Jiang feels the same way about Arcadia’s City Council.

"More Asians to be elected they'll be good because they know what we think," Jiang said.

Although Arcadia's population is about 60 percent Asian, only one member of the council, Sho Tay, is Asian. Jiang wants to see more Asians elected to the council.

He draws on a napkin to illustrate how the district map could be drawn, with at least one district drawn so it’s majority Asian.

"We can focus our vote on this area," he said.

But some wonder if moving away from at-large elections will indeed get more minority representatives on city councils. Robb Korinke with the Grassroots Lab, a marketing and research firm, has studied cities that switched to districts.

"We honestly saw pretty mixed results and not a lot of significant gain," Korinke said.

He looked at 22 cities that went from at-large to district elections to see how they fared in improving representation for Latinos. Seven did see a gain in Latino members. But most stayed the same. 

"My unifying theory of what is going on is that you can redraw the lines but there are actually larger indicators of what really drive turnout and ultimately representation," he said.

Back at the dim sum restaurant, Jiang said he knows that getting out the vote is the most important step in increasing representation on the council.

"You vote, that's your voice," he said.

But he’s glad that the Arcadia council ultimately decided to go with district elections. He said he will be watching closely as the district lines are drawn. 

Those who wish to comment on the composition of the districts can attend the Tuesday public hearing at 7 p.m. at the Arcadia City Hall Council Chamber, 240 West Huntington Drive.