LOCAL L.A. Now

Latino coalition presses case for district elections in Whittier

A Latino activist organization is stepping up its longtime efforts to change the way elections are conducted in the city of Whittier, the group announced this week.

The Whittier Latino Coalition delivered a letter from its law firm to city officials during Tuesday's council meeting that charged the city of violating state and federal voting rights laws by continuing to elect its council members from the city at large.

The coalition believes that at-large voting puts underrepresented minority groups at a disadvantage and wants the city to create geographic districts to elect council members. Even though Latinos make up more than 50% of the voting-age population of Whittier, there are no elected Latino representatives on the City Council.

The coalition also wants the city to change its election dates to coincide with state and federal elections, a move it believes would improve turnout.

Louis R. Reyes, a coalition spokesman, said the organization has been trying to help a Latino get elected to the council since 1998.  It started out by focusing on voter outreach and support for specific candidates, to no avail.

The coalition began focusing on the election system itself as a key factor in Latino candidates' lack of success. 

Two years ago, the organization's lawyers filed a complaint with the city, demanding that it drop its at-large elections system.  But nothing changed and Reyes said the group has decided to step up its efforts.

Mayor Bob Henderson said he doesn't believe that changing from at-large to district elections or aligning elections with state and federal balloting would help.

But he said the city will look into the group's arguments and will schedule a discussion of the matter soon, most likely at the council's next regularly scheduled meeting.

The Latino Coalition's redoubled efforts in Whittier comes as activists in other cities are pushing for districts in several cities that elect council members at large, including Anaheim and Palmdale.

Earlier this month, the Anaheim City Council narrowly rejected, 3-2, a measure that would have allowed voters a say in whether the city should switch to district elections.

Compton voters approved a switch from at-large elections a year ago after a lawsuit was brought against the city.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeanmerl

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