By Ted AYALA
With the threat of a lawsuit hanging over it, the Glendale City Council voted Tuesday night to begin preparing public outreach on the possible overhaul of its electoral system.
The move comes on the heels of a series of lawsuits targeting cities with claims of violations of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Plaintiffs assisted by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) have recently slapped the cities of Bellflower, Whittier and Santa Monica with lawsuits claiming discrimination against ethnic minorities within their cities, a violation of the CVRA. Municipalities with significant minority communities, but with few if any represented elected officials who vote at-large, have been left especially exposed to potential lawsuits.
According to census data posted on its website, Armenians account for the largest ethnic bloc in the city, accounting for nearly 30% of the city’s population. Hispanics and Asians follow behind with 19% and 16% respectively.
Glendale currently employs an at-large voting system, which has come under criticism from proponents of district voting. The city most recently explored the issue in 2005, eventually deciding to retain its at-large system.
Recent years, though, have seen increasing calls for district voting.
Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) and Glendale Community College (GCC) have both explored district representation recently, with city staff referring to GCC’s actions as being “much more affirmative.”
If public outreach is favorable, Glendale may drop the at-large system in favor of district representation – a longtime goal for many civic activists.
“You want to have more voter participation? Council districts are the way to go,” said Glendale resident Mike Mohill in a speech to the council dais. The former council candidate has in the past decried a perceived lack of representation for residents living south of the 134 Freeway. While calling the possible break-up of the city into five council districts “great,” he expressed disappointment that it was ethnic representation driving the decision.
“It shouldn’t be that way,” he said. “It should be about social and economic interests. We’re all in this together.”
“This lawsuit is about ethnic bloc voting,” agreed Councilmember Laura Friedman. “This is a voting rights lawsuit based on ethnic grounds, not geographic ones.”
According to City Atty. Michael J. Garcia, Tuesday night’s vote serves as an announcement of public outreach to community stakeholder groups concerning the issue. City staff will return to council at a later date with their findings and seek council support.
Garcia also pointed out that the city has not violated the CVRA in any way.
“I would say Glendale has had diverse councils,” he explained. His sentiment was echoed by Mayor Zareh Sinanyan.
“There’s absolutely no evidence of polarized or discriminatory voting in this city,” the mayor said. “Nothing has happened in Glendale … that comes close to violating the CVRA.”
Implementing district elections would require an amendment to the city charter.
Councilmember Ara J. Najarian supported the move, adding that public outreach should also gauge sentiment on a wider spectrum of related issues, including allowing for directly elected mayors, implementing a primary system, imposing term limits, and permitting the use of mail-in ballots.
“These all go hand-in-hand with some of the issues involving districts,” he added.
Councilmember Dave Weaver sounded the sole skeptical voice on the issue despite voting to approve the decision.
“I guess we have to do it, don’t we?” he said.