Challenged over its election process, Mission Viejo council votes to keep its system but research alternatives
While city officials acknowledge minority groups may sometimes be overshadowed in Mission Viejo elections, they don’t think dividing up the community in voting is the solution.
After three months of public hearings and outreach, the City Council decided Tuesday, Feb. 13, to keep in place the current process for having voters across Mission Viejo choose council members from the same field of candidates.
The city got a letter demanding it change how leaders are chosen so residents are voting for representatives from geographic districts, the argument being that would make it easier for minority groups to elect representatives to the council.
Council members committed to further researching racially polarized voting in hopes of finding an alternative solution. For example, officials said, maybe transportation or translation materials could be improved to increase Latino voter turnout.
“What we’re looking for is a solution that really is a solution,” City Attorney William Curley said. “We have the science that shows going to districts doesn’t solve it. We’re trying to seriously solve it and that’s going to take a little time.”
In the last several years, a number of Orange County cities and school districts have received demand letters from Shenkman & Hughes threatening a lawsuit if they didn’t voluntarily switch to district-based elections.
“They’re begging for a lawsuit,” attorney Kevin Shenkman said Wednesday of Mission Viejo. “I’m not sure what else to say.”
The demand letter alleges Mission Viejo’s at-large voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the vote of the Latino community, pointing to 2010 census data that puts Latinos at 17 percent of the city’s population.
Throughout the series of five public hearings held, city officials have said the Latino population is evenly spread throughout the city, which would make it difficult to create a district that would give the Latino population an advantage.
“If they take us to court, fine, we admit we’re wrong and that’s why we’re looking for the solution and not just a knee-jerk reaction solution,” Mayor Ed Sachs said. “There’s no real reason to sue the city now, unless we drag our feet and take five years to solve the problem.”
The City Council held five public hearings and created a section on its website dedicated to district-based elections, where residents could submit comments online and create maps with district boundaries for consideration by the council.
Sachs said a large number of the 218 public comments the city received on changing to district elections were in favor of the city keeping its at-large voting system.
The city has had four Latino councilmembers since 1988 and three of them, Robert Breton, John Paul Ledesma and Gail Reavis, have served as mayor. The mayor position – largely ceremonial – rotates among the council members.
Shenkman disagreed with city officials’ argument that Mission Viejo’s Latino population is too evenly spread out to create a district with a majority of voters. He cited a case against Palmdale, where that city ultimately racked up $4.5 million in legal fees in a losing battle.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Shenkman said. “I’ve heard that from all sorts of places.”
His recollection, he said, in seeing a map of the voting age population, “is that Mission Viejo is not exactly a model of integration where everyone is evenly spread out.”
“Palmdale claimed to be the most integrated city in the country,” Shenkman said. “In the end, the map that was drawn in Palmdale had two Latino majority districts.”
Huntington Beach received a letter from the same law firm in April, but responded with a letter of its own saying it was prepared to defend a lawsuit. To date, no lawsuit has been filed, officials said.
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