Glendale voters will be asked this spring if the city should switch from its long-standing at-large voting system to individual districts after the City Council voted on Tuesday to place the question on the April ballot.
Out of several options identifying different ways to establish the districts, council members agreed 4-0 to pursue a plan called “Option D” that lets local voters first decide on whether to make the switch. If voters approve moving ahead, city officials would gather public input, draw up draft districts and, finally, bring the proposed districting plan back to voters.
While other options stipulated that districts be put in place by the 2017 council election, the route selected by the council doesn’t have a timeline.
The discussion of abandoning the at-large voting system began last December when attorney Kevin Shenkman alleged in a letter that the city was violating the California Voting Rights Act because it discriminates against Latinos, and he threatened to sue.
An at-large system allows council members to be elected regardless of where they reside in the community, while a district-based system would have candidates compete to represent specific geographic areas.
The move has been referred to by some city officials as one of the biggest political changes in Glendale’s history.
Mayor Zareh Sinanyan pointed out that establishing districts is an effort that shouldn’t be done hastily.
“I would rather proceed with Option D in a calm, organized, well-informed manner and end up with a product with the threat of litigation looming over our heads … rather than be rushed into something and end up with a bad product and regret it and have to revisit and then have to redraft it and then look like clowns,” he said.
Councilman Dave Weaver and Councilwoman Paula Devine initially wanted to support an option with a set timeline because they said they felt it would lower the risk of facing a lawsuit, but eventually changed their minds in favor of Option D.
A number of California cities have fought lawsuits over their at-large voting system including Palmdale, which lost its case and had to make a change.
City Atty. Mike Garcia said Glendale’s good-faith effort would be something a court takes into consideration if a lawsuit is filed.
“Just from a legal perspective, it’s not certain that we could forestall litigation in the event we’re working under the auspices of Option D,” he said, though he noted earlier in the meeting he wouldn’t be presenting the series of options if he didn’t think they were legally viable.
If the matter went to court, Garcia said last week, the city would still have a strong case because Glendale’s demographics are different from cities such as Palmdale.
Although he cast an affirming vote to place the issue on the ballot, Councilman Ara Najarian criticized the allegations made against the city’s voting system, calling them flawed, and noted the city has had council members who have been “Spanish surnamed residents” such as Rick Reyes, Gus Gomez and Frank Quintero.
“Are we that afraid to be challenged that we’re willing to change our 100-plus year system of voting, which, dare I say, has served the members of this community exceptionally?” Najarian said.
Arguments for or against switching to council districts to be printed on the ballot are being collected through Jan. 2. The City Council will then vote on them.