Today is an important day for Anaheim—this council has agreed to settle the voting rights lawsuit against the city, clearing the way for a public vote on the matter. It is the right thing to do but frankly, I am disappointed that it took us so long to get here.
For those who do not understand why we were sued or why this issue requires a public vote, let me provide a little background.
The Anaheim City Charter—think of it as the city’s constitution—was adopted in 1965. In addressing the issue of elections, the charter called for an at-large voting system. In other words, each councilmember runs for election citywide and every voter gets to vote on every candidate. Under this system, councilmembers must campaign and seek votes from the entire geographic area of the city, roughly 20 miles from east to west.
In their claim against the city, the plaintiffs asserted that the city’s at-large voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act, a law that was passed in 2002. They argue that, under the law, Anaheim councilmembers are required to be elected by individual districts. That is, the city should be partitioned into districts and only voters in that district can vote for the candidate running in that specific area. The candidates are also required to live in the district in which they are running. This electoral system is called district-based voting. It is the system used by the vast majority of large cities, including all of the 10 largest cities in our state, except our city.
Anaheim is not the first city in the state to be sued under the California Voting Rights Act. We knew that and we knew how other cities in the same position we were in had fared with the courts. This is why I have been arguing that the city should settle the lawsuit and allow the people to vote. We would have saved over a million dollars and lots of time. But unfortunately the majority on the council did not agree with my perspective and we spent perhaps $2 million taxpayer dollars fighting a losing case.
My support for this settlement is not about whether or not I prefer district elections. It’s no secret that I do and others on this council do not. But my major issue with this lawsuit and the council’s handling of it comes down to my knowledge of the law and my commitment to the democratic process.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we at this dais think about district elections. Our electoral system cannot be changed by this or any city council. Because our system of voting is authorized in the city charter, it must be decided by the people through a charter amendment vote at the ballot box.
This settlement finally allows the people of Anaheim the opportunity to exercise their right to vote on how they want to be governed. That question is a most fundamental one and should be decided by the people. If the voters decide that they want to continue to be represented by leaders elected at an at-large basis, then that is what will happen. But if the voters decide that they want to be represented by leaders elected in individual districts, then that is what will happen. It’s the beauty of America and it is something that we should be celebrating, not fighting.
So today, with this settlement, we move forward with letting the people decide. And that is all that I have sought from the beginning…certainly since I made the motion in August 2012 to put this issue on the November 2012 ballot.
Although I am pleased that this settlement is finally here, because it is the right thing to do, I will say that I am frustrated and disappointed that it has taken so long to do the right thing—allow the people to vote.
As we announce this settlement, I’m sure that the public will likely have a few questions of this council, including:
Why does letting people vote makes sense now and somehow didn’t make sense in August of 2012 before the city spent perhaps $2 million in combined legal fees?
Also, why didn’t the council move to settle this case several months ago when the Citizens Advisory Commission unanimously advised that the question of district elections should be put before the voters? Why did they ignore the commissions’s recommendations?
And finally, I imagine that the people will want to know why the council delayed allowing the people to vote on district-based elections when the council was presented with credible concerns that the city was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. These are all good questions to ask.
In any event, I am pleased that we are moving forward. I want to thank my colleagues who voted to finally settle this costly litigation. It was the right thing to do.
In closing, I look forward to putting this issue on the ballot for the people to decide and moving forward to work cooperatively on job creation, on public safety and on all parts of city to ensure that Anaheim continues to offer an unrivaled qualify of life for all its residents.