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Whittier City Council to weigh plan for district elections

The Whittier City Council recently heard public testimony about changing at-large elections to a district election format.
The Whittier City Council recently heard public testimony about changing at-large elections to a district election format.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

The Whittier City Council will consider two plans Tuesday night for changing how council members are elected. The possible action is in response to Latino residents who sued Whittier alleging its at-large elections dilute their voting power.

Either plan would shift city elections away from its at-large system, in which all voters cast ballots in all council races, to a system in which candidates who reside in a council district are elected by  district residents.

Attorney Miguel Garcia, one of the plaintiffs, said Monday: "It's a hopeful sign that the City Council is moving forward toward a resolution."

He said he would be satisfied with either of the two options the council is proposing, because both would result in residents electing candidates from their own part of the city.

But he said the plan takes too long to kick in. It envisions a citywide charter election in June 2014 and the first district-elected city council members taking office in 2016. Garcia said the city should hold a charter election as early as this November, and have council district elections next year.

Garcia said the Whittier Latino Coalition would discuss its collective response to the proposal Monday night.

The  coalition sued the city alleging a violation under the California Voting Rights Act. That law forces local governments to abandon at-large voting systems if plaintiffs  prove that voting is polarized along racial lines. The plaintiffs contend voting is polarized in Whittier, with Latinos consistently voting for different candidates than white voters, but failing to elect leaders of their choice.

About two-thirds of Whittier's population and more than half the people of voting age there are Latino. Under the at-large system, just one Latino has won a council seat in Whittier's 115-year history.

City staffers recommend a plan that would divide the city into four council districts and create a separate city-wide post of mayor to be selected by all voters. The City Attorney's office said such a plan would give all the city's voters a say in who sits as mayor. The mayor would have the same powers as a council member.

A second option would divide the city into five council districts. The position of mayor would be a chosen from among the five council members on a rotating basis.

Either option would have voters in each district selecting their own council member.

The Whittier Latino Coalition, in its lawsuit against the city, also wants elections be held on the same day as state and federal elections, in June and November. They say too few people vote in April, when city elections have been held.

However, the city staff recommended keeping the April election dates because the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters  cannot accommodate any more issues on its even-year elections in June and November. The city could hold its own elections on those dates, but Whittier city staff said it would be too confusing to voters to run simultaneous side-by-side elections.

The city staff stayed away from proposing Whittier use another form of district elections proposed in Anaheim, where residents have also sued to get rid of at-large elections.

Under the Anaheim plan, candidates would run to represent the districts in which they live, but voters from across the city would cast ballots. An Orange County Superior Court judge is expected to rule Oct. 1 on whether that hybrid district plan is sufficient to remedy the issues raised by Anaheim residents in their voting rights lawsuit.

Members of the Whittier Latino Coalition had warned the council two weeks ago that the group  would object to the Anaheim format as just another form of at-large voting.



Agenda Report - Election Alternatives Final Signed English No Attachment...