Orange City Council votes to enforce district elections

district elections
Mayor Pro Tempore Michael Alvarez told The Panther that steps are being taken to outline the process of drawing voting districts in Orange. If districts were established, each district would have a representative in Orange’s city council. Photo by Mia Fortunato

The Orange City Council voted unanimously to move forward with district elections at a special meeting April 23. The vote comes on the heels of a February lawsuit aimed at changing Orange’s at-large election method.

“We are taking the first step in terms of information and outlining the process,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Michael Alvarez at the meeting.

The lawsuit, filed by lawyer Kevin Shenkman on behalf of Luis Ortiz-Franco, alleges that the city’s current at-large election method disenfranchises Latino voters and has “denied them effective political participation.”

The city now faces the decision of settling or fighting the lawsuit. Orange, which has citywide voting, will now be split into districts, meaning that each district’s residents will elect a city council member to represent them. The city council will start the process by finding a demographer company that will draw district lines based on population, Alvarez said.

That process began April 23, Alvarez told the Panther.

Kevin Shenkman, the attorney who filed the lawsuit against the city, said he was surprised the resolution to change the election process passed April 23, as the city has not reached out to him about the legal proceedings of the lawsuit.

“It’s one thing to say we are going to switch to district elections and another to actually do it,” Shenkman told The Panther. “It’s completely different to do it the right way. There are a lot of ways districts can be drawn that wouldn’t solve the problem.”

An example of a potential issue is gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of district lines to favor a certain outcome or group. It is most common at the state level, where districts are outlined to favor either a Democratic or a Republican candidate. This year, the Supreme Court will hear cases of gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina,
according to Politico.

The city intends to draw district lines to see how districts might look for the November 2020 elections, according to Alvarez.

“For current lawsuits, every city has lost. Realistically, we don’t want to get into a lawsuit we can’t win,” Alvarez told The Panther.

Orange is not the only city in Orange County to face legal action related to by-district voting. Anaheim, Fullerton, Lake Forest, Costa Mesa and Dana Point have all been sued in recent years to divide the cities into districts.

“The lawsuit will not be officially over until they actually hold a district-based election,” Smoller said. “But it is clear they are sending a message to the court.”

The lawsuit will be expensive, whether Orange chooses to settle or proceed, said Gary A. Sheatz, Orange’s city attorney.

The city of Santa Monica fought a similar lawsuit in February against district elections and lost, with a judge ruling that the city had to begin by-district voting with a special election in June.

“(Santa Monica) was on the hook for $6.8 million,” Sheatz said at the meeting April 23. “The city decided to appeal, which will probably escalate the cost. The (costs for) cities that have settled it have ranged from $150,000 to over $1 million.”

Some people do not want the city of Orange to settle the lawsuit.

“We have to take a stand as a city,” said a concerned citizen at the meeting. “I know there are cities that decided to roll over and not fight the good fight. Our election system isn’t broken and I don’t think we need to fix it.”

John Russo, who ran for mayor in November 2018, said that district elections have been brought up for the wrong reasons – he feels it could be divisive. Russo, who is running in an upcoming special election in November for an open city council seat, said he would maintain citywide elections if elected.

Other Orange residents think district elections could be a positive change, as each district would have a council member elected by its residents.

“Each area should have someone they can count on. We all need someone to represent us,” said Carole Walters, an Orange resident, at the city council meeting April 23.

Betty Valencia, who ran for city council in November 2018 and will run again against Russo for the open city council seat, was present at the meeting, wearing the signature red shoes she sported during her campaign for city council.

“City council has basically looked the same, with rotations on and off,” Valencia told The Panther. “There are issues around Orange that are never talked about because those communities are never thought of.”