May 2019

Orange responds to voter lawsuit with plans

to create council member districts

By Tina Richards

The Orange City Council expressed its intent to move from citywide to by-district voting by 2020, passing a resolution to initiate the process at a public meeting, April 23.

The council’s action is in response to a lawsuit filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and Luis Ortiz-Franco that alleges Orange’s current at-large city elections for council members violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the voice of Latinos. The lawsuit demands that the city divide itself into districts, wherein voters elect a candidate from within that city subset to represent them on the council.

While the city and many residents believe Orange’s at-large voting system is already inclusive, noting a “heritage of Hispanics holding elective office,” defending the lawsuit would have little chance of success and be expensive. City Attorney Gary Sheatz reported that even if the city were to prevail, it wouldn’t prevent someone else from filing a similar suit.  

Pick your battles
Similar lawsuits filed against a number of cities in Orange and Los Angeles Counties have not been successfully defended. Most cities (Anaheim, Santa Ana, Mission Viejo) have settled to avoid a protracted court battle. Sheatz notes that even settling the case can cost from $150,000 to $1 million.  Anaheim, he said, spent $1.2 million. Santa Monica, still appealing its loss in a higher court, has spent $6.8 million to date.

“This action starts the process to allow for public input, establish a timeline and hire a demographer to help with the districting effort,” Mayor Mark Murphy explained to a sparse audience in the council chambers. Because the meeting was not held on the usual second Tuesday of the month, many residents were apparently unaware of it.

“There will be plenty of time for public comments,” Murphy stressed. “This is just the preliminary step.”

Councilman Mike Alvarez offered his assurance that residents would be included. “As we look at the process, we want it to be as transparent, as impartial as it can be. We’re looking forward to public input,” he said. “This boils down to fiscal responsibility. This wasn’t on our mind when we started out this year, in terms of spending money. It’s going to be a process; we’ll all go through it together.”

Chance, not choice
Although there were few people in the audience, those who were there weighed in. “I’m opposed to this,” said Tammy Reese, a 48-year resident. “Our election system isn’t broken. I don’t think we need to be manhandled by the opposition. The city has to fight the good fight, do what’s in the best interest of Orange. If we have to change something, the choice should be given to voters.”

“We all pull on the same rope to make this city work,” resident Brian Lochrie remarked. “We work together.  Is it feasible to put the question on the November ballot? Ask voters if they are willing to spend money to fight districting?  Or maybe do some opinion research? It offends me that people think Orange isn’t representative of all ethnicities. This is being done for political reasons. It’s not what Orange is about.”

Longtime resident Carol Walters stood on the other side. “I support districts,” she said. “People need representatives they can talk to, someone we can count on. I realize this will be hard, but we all need someone to represent us.”

All aboard
The city has retained a law firm to assist with the process and allocated $250,000 to pay for it. City staff has been directed to hire a demographics expert and schedule community meetings and public hearings to encourage resident participation. Potential district maps will be presented for public review when they are prepared.

The goal is to have districts in place for the November 2020 election. The special election slated for this November to fill a single council seat is expected to proceed as planned.  The 2019 election was scheduled prior to the lawsuit being filed, and dividing the city into districts ahead of that time is unrealistic. It is, however, too early in the process to know for certain if, or how, the November election will be affected.

Candidates running for that seat must file in late July, early August – well before the districting issue is settled. In the short term, a city official suggests that candidates proceed with their campaigns as usual.