For nearly two years, fierce debate over whether Anaheim should change its election system from at-large to districts has roiled the resort city, leading to raucous meetings and angry protests outside City Hall.
On Tuesday, the city announced that it would put the issue to a vote in November.
"This is about something very simple, letting the people vote," said Mayor Tom Tait, who supports creating council districts.
Anaheim is the largest city in California that still retains at-large voting to select local representatives, a system that some contend has left Latinos politically powerless in a city where they now make up a majority. The city is divided along ethnic and economic lines, and the political power base in town has often been firmly planted in the upscale hills on the city's east side.
A majority of the council had previously opposed putting the issue on the ballot but relented to settle a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2012 on behalf of three residents who accused the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act.
Though Latinos make up about 53% of the city's population, they account for less than half of eligible voters. Few Latinos have ever been elected to the City Council.
Anaheim is just one of several cities across California that in recent years have faced voting rights lawsuits urging district elections. In 2012, Compton settled a similar suit by putting the issue on the ballot. The measure was approved by voters. More recently, a judge found Palmdale in violation of the state's Voting Rights Act and ordered the city to hold a new by-district City Council election.
In Anaheim, each side is now gearing up to take its case to the voters.
On Wednesday morning, a coalition of local organizers, union members, Latino groups and others who have advocated for districts stood in front of City Hall. They held placards that read "Yes on districts in Anaheim" and shouted "It's time, Anaheim."
"I'm confident that the people, when they're given a choice between districts and at-large, will choose districts," Tait told the crowd.
According to the settlement, City Council members will be allowed to write a ballot argument in support of the districting measure but cannot write the argument opposing it. Tait said he was prepared to write the supporting statement.
Mayor Pro Tem Kris Murray, who voted last year against putting a council district measure on the ballot, said she decided to support the settlement so that the city would stop incurring legal costs and because it allowed the issue to go to a vote, as opposed to having court-imposed districts. The suit has cost the city about $1.2 million so far. As part of the settlement, the city will have to pay the plaintiffs' court costs.
Murray said she "will be vocally opposed to a ballot measure that seeks to implement single-member districts."
"I just believe that the single-member districts divide the city and divide how we're governed," she said.
If the measure is approved, the settlement calls for an advisory committee of three retired judges to help draw district lines. It also says that the city would begin using districts in the 2016 municipal election.
In addition, the November ballot will also include a proposal to increase the size of the City Council from four to six members. That measure was approved for the ballot by the council last year and had been scheduled for a vote in June. The mayor will continue to be elected at-large.
The settlement also requires that a measure to add another election model known as residency-based districts to the city charter be deleted from the ballot. In a residency-based model, council members must live within designated districts but are elected at-large. Nearby Santa Ana has a similar system. In a district-based system, voters in each district elect their own representative.
The residency-based model was approved by the council last year and was expected to be placed on the ballot so that it could become part of the city charter. If the district measure fails, residency-based districts can be put in place.
Proponents of districts said they're planning to go door to door, handing out fliers and trying to persuade residents one by one to support the measure. Based on prior election turnout, they will need to win over about 40,000 voters for the measure to pass, said Leigh Shelton, a spokeswoman for the Unite Here Local 11 union, which backs districts.
Ada Tamayo, a local activist, said she knows getting those votes won't be easy.
"There are a lot of people in Anaheim who still don't know about districts," she said in Spanish. "Hopefully we'll be able to encourage them."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times