Santa Ana Should Think Hard Before Shifting To By-District Council Elections

Santa Ana City Councilman Sal Tinajero wants to shift from the current system of from-district to by-district council elections.

The current from-district system requires candidates to live within a council ward (district) but run city-wide – guaranteeing balanced geographic representation on the council, while ensuring councilmembers are accountable to the entire citizenry.

By-district council elections means council members are only elected by citizens of their districts – even though they are governing all city residents.

Tinajero’s sudden interest in by-district elections was prompted by former Councilman Jose Solorio’s successful return to city council by moving into Ward 1 into Ward 3 – as if a by-district system would have prevented it. From the OC Register:

“Tinajero said by-district – or by-ward elections in Santa Ana’s case – would ensure candidates are selected by neighbors who have known them for some time.”

Anaheim’s inaugural experience with by-district elections comes in handy here.

There is some truth to Tinajero’s claim. Citizens in Anaheim’s District 5 voted decisively for Steve Faessel, a life-long Anaheim resident who has lived in what is District 5 for more than 40 years.

However, the District 5 campaign also shows by-district elections have no power to keep out carpetbaggers. Faessel’s principal opponent was Mark Lopez, an aide to Supervisor Shawn Nelson and sometime Anaheim resident who moved into District 5 from Westminster. He was even endorsed by apostles of by-district elections – such as Mayor Tom Tait – who were willing to sacrifice the treasured principle of “neighbors could elect neighbors” in order to advance their personal political agendas.

Without Faessel in the race, District 5 would have been won by a political opportunist who had literally just moved in from a different city – the opposite of Tinajero’s ideal of councilmembers “selected by neighbors who have known them for some time.”

Benefit To The GOP
In Anaheim, districting works to the advantage of Democrats. After all, that was the primary point of the multi-year progressive campaign to impose them.

Santa Ana has an all-Democrat, all-Latino city council. For years, there has been talk in OC Republican circles of filing a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit to force a shift to by-district elections – which would give Republicans a fighting chance of electing candidates to the city council. One reason is Santa Ana’s growing Vietnamese population would likely lead to the creation of one or possibly two districts with significant numbers of Vietnamese voters. However, this talk has never turned into action.

Several weeks ago, OC Daily spoke with CVRA attorney par excellence Kevin Shenkman, whose real or threatened lawsuits spurred Fullerton, Costa Mesa, Garden Grove and a number of other cities to move to by-district elections.

On one hand, Shenkman didn’t think the case for a CVRA lawsuit is as strong as in other OC cities he has sued. On the other hand, he also said the litigant doesn’t necessarily need to be a Vietnamese-American resident; he said an Anglo resident could sue, citing the shut-out of Anglo candidates from the council.

An OC Register editorial cautioned Santa Ana from rushing into by-district elections, and its advice was sound from the perspective of what by-district elections promise and what they deliver. Like most political reforms, the promises of advocates are seldom realized.

By-district elections do not guarantee “neighbors electing neighbors” – or even that adherents of that rallying cry will remain faithful to it when tempted by political expedience.

They do not necessarily produce greater citizen participation in the process. In Garden Grove, there was no election in one of the new districts because there was only one candidate. The same happened in the Garden Grove Unified School District and the Anaheim Elementary School District.

They don’t reduce the amount of money in council races – although they do function of a sort of bottle-neck and more breathing space for a candidate to somewhat offset a funding disadvantage through vigorous grass-roots campaign (if the districts are small enough).

If by-district elections happen via council action, it will be because a majority of the council believes it serves their political interests. Who knows: now that they have successfully raised their pay by several hundred percent, some might seek to use a by-district elections ballot measure as a vehicle to sneak in make councilmember a full-time position – a change Councilwoman Michele Martinez has publicly advocated.

If Orange County Republicans were smart, they’d take a page from the Left’s playbook and find a litigant and file a CVRA lawsuit, with a battle plan for controlling or strongly influencing the map-drawing process. But that is a big “if”.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but Councilman Tinajero’s motivation doesn’t bode well. There’s a saying that “hard cases make for bad law.” Re-structuring the method for electing the city council out of pique at the outcome of a single contest isn’t the soundest reason for reform.

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