Los Alamitos Avoids Legal Fight Over Latino Voters by Switching to District Elections

City hall. cityoflosalamitos.org

Los Alamitos city council made national headlines by taking on the California Values Act and voting to adopt an ordinance opting-out of the “sanctuary state” law in April. Mayor Troy Edgar even started a GoFundMe account in March for anticipated legal expenses, only tallying $25,895 out of a $100,000 goal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network made good on their threat to sue the city two days after the ordinance passed. 

But lost in all the anti-sanctuary state fervor is how Los Alamitos completely folded when confronted with potential litigation of another stripe.

On Tuesday, the city held its first public hearing on district elections, a reform that mandates council members live in the district they represent. Setting everything in motion, Shenkman & Hughes, a Malibu-based firm representing the Southwest Voter Registration Project, sent the city a Mar. 27 letter accusing its at-large election system of violating the California Voting Rights Act. Attorney Kevin Shenkman pointed to the recent passage of the opt-out ordinance’s first reading on Mar. 19 as evidence of hostility towards the Latino electorate in the city. 

“This politically charged move by the City Council, to incite a fight over California’s status as a ‘sanctuary state,’ reflects a disturbing insensitivity to the Latino community it purports to represent,” wrote attorney Kevin Shenkman. “Under the guise of compliance with the US Constitution, the action of the Los Alamitos City Council only serves to perpetuate a climate of fear amongst Latinos who feel unwanted, unsafe and unrepresented in Los Alamitos.” The firm gave city officials a May 15 deadline to decide whether to voluntarily switch to district elections or be sued. 

With a lawsuit already on its hands and fledgling crowd sourcing efforts, Los Alamitos took the first step in avoiding another legal battle by adopting a district elections resolution during a May 11 special meeting. The agenda report soberly noted that cities don’t fare well fighting the reform in court, citing Anaheim’s $1.1 million price tag among recent examples. The resolution denied any CVRA violations, but its passage allowed Los Alamitos “safe harbor” protections against litigation by signaling an intent to make the electoral switch voluntarily. 

Los Alamitos is actively seeking input from residents on drawing up the city’s new political boundaries, but a scant few showed up to the first public hearing this week. The city contracted with National Demographics Corporation who dispatched consultant Dr. Justin Levin to the special meeting. Over the summer, the city will produce maps for district reform that will seat council members beginning in the 2020 general elections. 

Even with greater scrutiny on the small city of 11,500 residents, coverage of the Latino-centered CVRA allegations and ensuing path toward voluntary reform are as sparse as the attendance at the public hearing. Currently, the five-member Los Alamitos city council is all-gabacho save for Warren Kusumoto, who took a leading role in its nefarious opt-out ordinance. In Shenkman’s letter, the attorney pointed out that in the past 15 years, not a single Latino candidate has campaigned for city council despite Latinos comprising 21 percent of the population.

“Opponents of fair, district-based elections may attribute the lack of Latinos vying for elected positions to a lack of interest in local government from the Latino community,” Shenkman wrote. “On the contrary, the alarming absence of Latino candidates seeking election to the Los Alamitos City Council reveals vote dilution.”

The legal lingo of “vote dilution” was coupled with accusations of “racially polarized voting.” For the latter, Shenkman turned to three state ballot propositions on bilingual education, affirmative action, and undocumented immigration to show Latino voters in Los Alamitos starkly contrasted with non-Latinos. For good measure, the attorney added the anecdote of former mayor Dean Grose’s reelection to council in 2012 following a scandal years earlier where he sent out a racist email showing a watermelon patch at the Obama White House, a move that caused him to resign. 

For all the braggadocios immigrant bashing and sit-down discussions with President Donald Trump about sanctuary laws, all Edgar and company can do is whine and complain about district elections. The mayor’s GoFundMe tally raised to defend the opt-out ordinance wouldn’t even be enough to cover the required $30,000 reimbursement owed to Shenkman & Hughes for documented costs. 

Four more public hearings are scheduled in Los Alamitos ahead of its Aug. 9 deadline to adopt an ordinance establishing district elections. 

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