There were more empty seats and less acrimony inside the Council Chambers of Anaheim City Hall last Thursday evening.
Long the scene of political turmoil over the course of last year during council meetings, the mood was lighter as the location played host for the second-to-last gathering of the citizens advisory committee, a group established after the former council majority passed a resolution during a special post-riot meeting on August 8, 2012 that tasked it with studying and making recommendations on the city's electoral system.
The move countered Mayor Tom Tait's failed proposal at the time to put the question of six council districts on last November's ballot and was seen as a delay tactic by critics.
More recently, plaintiffs in Moreno et al. v. City of Anaheim, a lawsuit that wants to create district elections because they say not enough Mexis represent all the Mexis in the city, argued in court documents that the committee was "not a serious or adequate response" to their contentions. But Orange County Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller didn't agree, granting a delay in the case until July so that the group of ten voting member commissioners could, indeed, carry out and finish its work.
Orange County Communities for Responsible Development (OCCORD) mobilized its supporters to form the majority of those in attendance. Executive Director Eric Altman and others handed out familiar pro-district elections material, including a stat sheet detailing unequal distribution of key resources between Anaheim proper and its less-Mexican, wealthier hills.
The evening began with public comments and councilwoman Lucille Kring was first to speak. "I happen not to support districting," she said addressing the key question of the night. "In a few years the Hispanic community could have all five people on the city council, so you just let the process work." Her words displayed the politician's forked tongue as she campaigned citing a belief that Anaheim was in violation of the CVRA. As a standing councilwoman, she pledged support for six districts in Anaheim before a meeting of Los Amigos earlier this year. Not one to stick around, Kring promptly left the podium to no applause after showing her true colors.
The majority of the speakers that followed, as they have been in prior meetings, were supportive of drawing eight districts. Community members from Ponderosa, Guinida, and Anna Drive, all neighborhoods of neglect that saw officer-involved shootings last year, backed the call for districts, saying that the reform would finally bring them a voice. "We need people who represent us here and not from other places," Mariana Rivera, a resident of Guinida Lane told the Weekly after she spoke in Spanish at the podium.
The greater part of the next two hours belonged to the committee itself. It was the group's second-to-last meeting and important unfinished business remained. Facilitated by Steven Lynn, former chair for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, they embarked on the task of working through a number of key recommendations for their forthcoming report. With a marker in hand and a poster board on an easel, Lynn navigated through the evening's agenda. The first question was on the expansion of the council. Without tying it to district elections, there was near-unanimous agreement that the dais needed to add seats.
The suggestion is not new. Former Mayor Curt Pringle proposed a ballot measure in 2008 for the addition of two more council members by 2010. It went nowhere as Kring, serving at the time, felt that five was just fine since the city's founding in 1857! This time around, five committee members favored a six-member council, four pressed for eight and one, Vic Real, abstained saying the question was 'premature.' At that point, Real, a selection of former councilman Harry Sidhu, seemed like he'd be the most hesitant to change, but would later prove to be the wild card of the evening.
The least contentious matter of the night followed. After brief discussion, another recommendation was made to keep the position of Mayor elected at-large as opposed to being appointed by an interior vote of the city council.
Last, but certainly not least, lay the question of recommending the creation of single districts, a hybrid system or keeping the current at-large method for electing city council members. The committee considered hybrid options before utterly confusing them. One system proposed a SanTana style model where candidates are nominated by district, but are elected at-large. The other was akin to a 'half-and-half' scheme where half of the council seats would be district elected and the other half at-large. "Special interests can still get involved in district run cities," chimed councilwoman Kris Murry-appointed commissioner Sandy Day.
"There are special interests people on this committee and they know who they are," commissioner Larry Larsen, selected by
Tait Galloway, said earlier. In the end, Murray's other appointee, Keith Olesen, passed a motion scraping the hybrid models from consideration.
All that was left was a showdown where either keeping the at-large system or changing to single districts would be recommended. A day prior to the August vote that created the committee, then-Disneyland Resort President George Kalogridis wrote a letter to the Mayor and his colleagues that on the surface supported district elections. He also suggested, though, that any changes in governance structure be studied by a group of Anaheim residents at the same time. Accordingly, each council member was afforded two appointees giving Murray, councilwoman Gail Eastman and former councilman Harry Sidhu the opportunity to flex a numerical majority. By design, the recommendation of keeping the at-large system could have very easily prevailed by a 6-4 majority vote giving it more leverage, but a surprise deadlock happened instead via Real.
"Is that hand up or down, Vic?" Lynn asked. Real clarified his position joining Mayor Tait and former councilwoman Lorri Galloway's appointed members in voting for single districts. Across the way, the opposing five looked none too pleased at what transpired.
After rival factions exchanged barbs, Lynn was transformed from facilitator to circus ringmaster!
"There are special interest people on this committee and they know who they are," Larsen said earlier. "What we're going to spend in court is going to cost way more than a special election," he added in favor of settling the lawsuit with district elections.
"Money well spent!" Olesen countered.
"I'm going to suggest that that horse died about an hour ago and there's no sense in kicking it," Lynn said to laughter in the audience. "I'm just asking you if I can get you beyond that mournful death to a recommendation affirmative to the Mayor and council."
Out of the unexpected logjam, the committee was left with no choice but to unanimously agree at the suggestion of Lynn to ask the council to put the issue of district elections to a vote of the people. With the key recommendations reached, the next meeting on May 9 will not revamp any of them. Instead, the language of the final report will be refined, clarified and voted upon. At that point, it will be delivered to the city council by the scheduled May 31 deadline and the citizens advisory committee will be disbanded.
After six months of long, arduous meetings and presentations by various experts, the study group has all but finished it work. Earlier this year, councilman Jordan Brandman came out in support of single districts alongside the Democratic Party of Orange County. Kring's swing holds firm a potential majority against it. What will the council do with its key recommendations?
"I was really surprised with Kring," committee member Martin Lopez told the Weekly afterward of her public comments. "That makes you wonder, what's going on up there?" With the committee succeeding in prolonging the issue, will the council majority, led by Murray, throw the report under the bus or seek another means of delay? Time will tell.
"This was not easy," Lynn told those assembled before closing comments. "But you're very close to the finish line."
By recommending the issue of district elections be put forth before the people of Anaheim at the ballot, the committee appears to be closing in right back where it started.