Whittier voters will get their say about whether the city should change the way it chooses members of the City Council--but not in time for the next municipal election.
During a well-attended council meeting this week, the council decided to hold a special election in June for voters to decide whether they want to switch to a by-district elections system. Currently council members are chosen by the city at large.
Activists, who have sued the city under the California Voting Rights Act, say the at-large elections have deprived Latinos of a chance to elect a representative of their choice.
Whittier's population is nearly 66% Latino, but voters have elected only one member of that ethnic group to the City Council since the city's incorporation in 1898.
Earlier this month, three members of the Whittier Latino Coalition sued the city seeking district elections. They also want municipal elections changed from April of even-numbered years to November, which the plaintiffs believe will improve turnout.
Setting a special election after the upcoming April municipal balloting, when the mayor is among those whose seats are up, "delays our opportunity to elect someone through the district method until 2016," said coalition spokesman Louis Reyes.
City officials "had the opportunity to address the issue directly and let the judicial system fix their broken election process," the coalition said in a written statement.
But Mayor Bob Henderson said it was important for Whittier voters to decide the matter through a special election "as opposed to have it decided by outside forces."
Coalition leaders and their attorneys said they would continue their lawsuit and predicted the court will see that the city complies with state law.
Several other cities with significant minority populations and histories of racially polarized voting have been forced under the law to change from at-large to by-district elections, including Modesto and Compton.