Fullerton voters in November 2016 will decide whether City Council members should be elected by district instead of citywide, under a settlement of two lawsuits that alleged the city’s current at-large system discriminates against minorities.
If Fullerton voters reject district-based elections, then the lawsuits will go back before a judge for trial, according to Kevin Shenkman, one of the attorneys involved in the settlement announced Wednesday.
The settlement of suits brought by Shenkman and the American Civil Liberties Union mirrors one in Anaheim, where voters overwhelmingly approved electing representatives by districts. In Buena Park, city officials capitulated to demands for district-based elections without ever going to court.
Fullerton Mayor Greg Sebourn told City News Service that the city, which signed off on the settlement on Tuesday, would issue a statement later today.
The ACLU sued Fullerton in Orange County Superior Court in March. Shenkman’s lawsuit was already pending at that point and was scheduled for trial in October.
“When the ACLU filed its lawsuit, we pretty much had a settlement in principal that already essentially was the same terms,” Shenkman said. “I’m glad that it’s done now and we’re moving forward and hopefully the electorate of Fullerton will recognize that district-based elections are better than at- large elections for a host of reasons.”
Shenkman said the residents of Fullerton should have a say in the way their elections are conducted.
“I think there’s some value in allowing the citizens of Fullerton to fix this issue through the democratic process,” Shenkman said.
If voters do not approve district-based elections, Shenkman predicts his side will win in court anyway. He cited a lengthy legal battle with Palmdale, which cost the city about $7 million.
“And they ended up doing exactly what we asked for three-plus years earlier,” Shenkman said.
As part of the settlement, Fullerton officials will be required to seek “extensive community input” from voters on the district boundaries, according to the ACLU. The city will hold two sets of town hall meetings in four geographic quadrants, and then must conduct three more public hearings on the district maps.
City officials must also hire an expert on demographics to draw up district maps that will be approved by the City Council.
The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jonathan Paik, a Fullerton resident of Asian descent.
“I’m happy this case was resolved without the need for protracted litigation and am hopeful that the residents of Fullerton will vote for district-based elections,” Park said. “District-based elections will help local communities build new and lasting relationships with elected representatives who are responsive to our local concerns.”
District-based elections require City Council members to live in the districts they wish to represent, and only voters in those districts cast ballots for those candidates.
The lawsuits against Fullerton alleged the city’s election system discriminated against Latinos and Asians and violated the state’s Voting Rights Act.
One in four eligible voters in the city are of Asian descent, yet there are no Fullerton council members of Asian heritage, according to the ACLU.
In January 2014, the Anaheim City Council voted to settle its lawsuit with the ACLU, which led the way for a change in that city’s elections from an at-large system to a district one. The organization alleged the at-large system discriminated against Latinos.
In November, Anaheim voters changed the city’s charter to have district- by-district elections for the council. Measure L was approved by a 30,873-to- 13,981 margin. The size of the council was also increased from four plus the mayor to six plus the mayor.
The first district-by-district election will be next year in Anaheim.
According to the 2010 census, Fullerton is 22.8 percent Asian, 34.4 percent Latino, 2.3 percent black “and the rest is almost entirely white,” Shenkman said.
Voters of Latino descent are concentrated on the city’s southside, Shenkman said, while Asian voters are on the northwest side.
The aim of the lawsuit wasn’t to get someone of Asian or Latino descent elected to the City Council, Shenkman said, but rather to give minorities more opportunity to elect someone they feel best represents their interests.
— Wire reports