Fullerton agrees to voting districts in settling lawsuit

Fullerton officials have settled a lawsuit alleging that the city's at-large elections violate California's Voting Rights Act, agreeing to create a district-based system that would then need voters' approval.

The suit, brought in March by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles and the ACLU of Southern California on behalf of resident Jonathan Paik, argued that at-large voting prevented Fullerton's minority populations from electing their preferred candidates.

The city has a population of 139,000, 23% of whom are Asian American and 35% are Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The effort to do away with at-large voting in Fullerton is part of a growing movement to increase minority representation.

In Anaheim last year, Latino activists sued to institute district-based elections, in which council members must live in the area they represent and be elected only by voters in that district. City officials promised to put a measure calling for exactly that on the ballot. It passed in November.

The Fullerton settlement requires city officials to hold public meetings seeking community input on a district map. A demographics expert — David Ely of Compass Demographics in San Gabriel — will lead the effort and draw up proposals for the council.

"I'm just really happy that these steps will be taken — that we will respect what all of us has to say," said Paik, 27, who works for the Korean Resource Center, a social services group.

In the last two decades, Fullerton has had one Asian American and one Latino council member, ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme said.

"A city is stronger when residents feel heard through the democratic process," said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of ACLU Orange County and Inland Empire offices.

Laboni Hoq, litigation director for Advancing Justice, said: "It's not just the issues" that concern Asian Americans and other underserved groups "that will finally get attention under a district system — it's the access to public officials."

Once the council has approved a district map, it will be put to the voters in November 2016.

anh.do@latimes.com
Twitter: @newsterrier

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