Reforming Anaheim council representation

Sept. 10, 2012

By Michael Warnken

Sept. 10, 2012

Until the public shooting of two Hispanic men by local police just a month ago, Anaheim was mostly known for the Anaheim Angels, Gene Autry and Disneyland. Today, we are well aware it is not the happiest place on earth. Anaheim, like many other parts of the state, has a gang problem and it seems to a have a police problem, too, as the recent shootings by police occurred in broad daylight under questionable circumstances.

Mayor Tom Tait called for an investigation into these incidents by the offices of California Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. However, local residents were not satisfied, and many felt that the police had crossed the line, especially since there had been six other similar events this year, five of which were fatal.

Most of the police brutality was focused around Hispanic citizens, who make up half of city residents. However, because many residents are immigrants who are not citizens, perhaps about one third of the city’s eligible voters are Hispanic.

The council’s current makeup is: Lori Galloway, half Hispanic, half Filipina; Harry Sidhu, a Sikh immigrant from India; and two Anglos, Gail Eastman and Kris Murray.

So Hispanic activists began calling for changes in the city’s electoral system. Along with others, the activists believe there is a connection between the electoral system in Anaheim and the violence.

The Orange County Register also reported:

“Those pushing for change point to the elegant neighborhoods of Anaheim Hills. The city’s current voting system has concentrated overwhelming political power there: Four of the city’s five council members are residents.

“That far exceeds the percentage of city voters who live there, a disparity that districts would remedy — according to their supporters — by more evenly distributing council seats. A review of voter-registration numbers by ZIP code shows that the Anaheim Hills area accounts for less than a fourth of the city’s voters.

“By comparison, the central part of the city — including Disneyland but also the hard-life neighborhoods at the heart of recent protests — has more than a third of the city’s voters but only one resident council member. And the west side of Anaheim accounts for about 40 percent of the city’s registered voters, but is home to no council member.”

On August 8, the Anaheim city council held a special hearing where a proposal by Tait was considered to raise the number of council members from four to six, with calls for an increase to as many as eight. Calls also went up to switch from the current system of at-large elections for council members to a system in which members are elected by geographical district. The council did not vote to send the proposal to the voters, but tabled it for further investigation.

At-Large Elections

An at-large electoral system exists when all the representatives in a city are elected by the entire populace. The alternative to this is known as “district elections,” in which city council members are each elected from different geographical districts of the same population.

District elections give smaller areas of people direct access to a representative. The people of that district knows who represents them, and are able hold them more directly accountable for their actions and decisions. Representatives in at-large districts are less accountable and like to claim they “represent everyone,” but in actual practice, they tend to ignore everyone equally, except those who are celebrities, powerful special interests and large campaign donors.

At-large electoral systems are dubious to begin with, as they have long been used to suppress minority political participation. This  practice was mastered in the American South, where cities with black populations of 40 percent to 50 percent or more would not have a single black city council representative.  The problem was so bad in the South that the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress in 1965 to address this and other voting-rights problems. The act forced cities in the Southern states to hold single-member district elections.

As the largest city in Orange County and the 10th largest city in the state, with a population of about 340,000 people, Anaheim should have single-member district elections. A move to such a system would open the city up to more electoral diversity.  Just as juries and grand juries should reflect a cross section of a community, any properly formed electoral system should reflect the participants that they represent in a meaningful way.

Local Representation

In a reader rebuttal in the Orange County Register, council member Kris Murray justified the tabling of the proposal of moving to six members elected by district:

“There are still many questions to be answered surrounding those shootings, and several independent investigations are already underway to do so. Although some have asserted that there may be a correlation between the two issues, the city would be irresponsible to undertake wholesale change of its entire electoral system without first providing an opportunity for extensive citizen dialogue, careful legal analysis, and consideration of the options available to meet voters’ concerns for fair representation.”

But Police officers, judges and city administrative employees are added to governmental institutions without much thought. It’s silly to suggest that moving to district elections and adding more city councilors to the most important branch in a representative republic requires months of review. So, let’s indulge Murray on that point and consider the proposal for an increase in members and single member districts.

Currently, each of the four council members in Anaheim represents all 340,000 residents of Anaheim. If single-member districts were implemented without increasing the number of council members, each of four district would comprise about 85,000 people. An increase to six members would create districts of just under 60,000 people. (In both cases, I’m assuming the mayor, who sits on the council, would continue to be elected at large.)

But in evaluating this proposal, one simple question that needs to be asked is this: Is that real representation? Is that truly adequate? Can anyone even begin to honestly suggest that a city councilor can represent 60,000 or more people? So, why stop at just six members? At some point, the fundamental question needs to be asked: “How many people can a single city council member adequately represent?”

True representation means agency, direct contact and access by all. This might mean proper representation leads to significantly more elected council members (or their equivalents) Consider, for example the fact that Chicago has 50 aldermen and New York City has 51 city council members. More is not a problem; in fact, from a legislative standpoint, these cities work quite well.

More decentralization is needed

In the end, representatives are elected to resolve problems. More representatives would indeed help address Anaheim’s current problems — challenges that are not limited to gang violence and police brutality. If the city council had enough representatives, they could hold their own hearings investigating the police, like a state legislature or congress would and try to work them out rather than depending on the state and federal attorneys general. This amounts to self-government.

Further, at-large elections serve to protect incumbents from challengers because of the influence city employees have on such elections. Through their unions, city employees (including police) are more able to concentrate their influence and back their slate of candidates in at-large elections. The fewer representatives, the fewer votes on the council are required to raise taxes and spike employee pensions. The fewer representatives, the less accountable they and their employees are to the citizens.

Anaheim’s city council is not going to want to implement any changes. It will likely continue to put the matter off as long as it can because the reform needed is a direct threat to the current council’s power. The longer they are able to delay a change, the more they can maintain the status quo.

However, the citizens of Anaheim need to be vigilant. They need to keep pushing for more representation and single member districts. The thoughts and ideas of the representatives should be as broad and diverse as the people they represent. More representatives would achieve that goal as well as level the political playing field and lead to less violence and more accountability.

(Editor’s note: This is a revision of an earlier piece on the same subject.)

(Michael Warnken is an expert in the field of political representation and American electoral history.)

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