Bellflower joins list of California cities sued over voting rights law

Bellflower joins list of California cities sued over voting rights law
Attorney Thomas A. Saenz, shown in 2006, heads the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which helped bring suit against the city of Bellflower this week. (Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Bellflower has become the latest city to be sued over its at-large system of electing City Council members.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and two law firms filed a Superior Court complaint Monday afternoon, on behalf of three minority Bellflower residents alleging the city is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

The act seeks to ensure that minorities have an opportunity to elect leaders of their choice.  The suit alleges that Bellflower's practice of electing council members citywide instead of by geographic districts has hindered Latino and African American candidates,

The plaintiffs said they have found patterns of racially polarized voting in the southeast Los Angeles County city of about 77,000. They want the city to switch to by-district elections to give voters in strongly minority neighborhoods an opportunity to elect at least one representative to the City Council.

Bellflower's population is 52% Latino and 14% African American, according to the city's website.  All five council members are white.

"Successful local governance is increasingly critical in our democracy," MALDEF President Thomas A. Saenz said in a statement released by the organization. "Bellflower will thrive under a system that ensures fair representation for all voters throughout the entirety of the city."

On Tuesday, Bellflower Mayor Sonny R. Santa Ines said he would not have a specific comment on the complaint until the city's legal counsel finishes reviewing it, but he said city officials "have always been and continue to be committed to engaging the entire Bellflower community. ... We look forward to a logical and positive resolution to this important issue."

Plaintiffs' attorneys said the city has been on notice since 2009, when San Francisco-based attorney Robert Rubin sent a letter demanding the city comply with the law.  Repeated attempts to work with the city since then have been ignored, plaintiffs said.

Rubin, who helped write the voting rights law that took effect in 2002, has been involved in several of the lawsuits filed against California cities, school districts and other local governments.

Most have settled before their cases got to trial but a Superior Court judge ruled against  Palmdale last summer and its City Council is continuing its fight through appeals.

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