S.D. Suit Challenges At-Large Elections

Times Staff Writer

A class-action lawsuit expected to be filed in U.S. District Court today alleges that the City of San Diego's use of at-large elections and its inequitable division of councilmanic districts have disenfranchised Hispanic voters, barring them from meaningful participation in the political process.

Echoing complaints made in cities across the nation, the lawsuit charges that the city's electoral practices violate the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 by "diluting" the impact of the Hispanic vote to the point where it has no effect.

It also claims that city officials have engaged in "intentional discrimination" against Hispanic voters by "fracturing" their communities through the redistricting process. And it notes that not a single Hispanic has ever been elected outright to the City Council. Two have won election in District 8, but only after having first been appointed to a seat.

Intent of Lawsuit

"This action is intended to redress practices and procedures . . . causing (Hispanics) to have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice to the San Diego City Council," the lawsuit says.

The plaintiff in the litigation--the Chicano Federation of San Diego County--is "commencing this action to "make the political processes leading to nomination and election to the San Diego City Council open equally to San Diego Hispanic Americans," according to the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

The suit names the city, Mayor Maureen O'Connor and her council colleagues and City Clerk Charles Abdelnour. It seeks a declaration that the present at-large general election system violates federal voting rights statutes, the creation of a new election plan for San Diego, and a requirement that any redistricting occurring within the next 10 years receive approval from the U.S. attorney general.

"The ultimate goal here is to switch to district elections," said Michael Aguirre, attorney for the Chicano Federation and an unsuccessful City Council candidate last year. "That's the way to remedy this situation."

Under the present system, candidates are elected by district in the primary but face a citywide test in the general election. In the district election system, voters cast ballots only for candidates within their district.

O'Connor could not be reached for comment on the litigation late Monday. But her spokesman, Paul Downey, said the mayor has previously expressed her willingness to put the issue of district elections to a public vote.

"The mayor supports the current system, and the reason is, you have a council that has to deal with a $700-million budget . . . and a lot of citywide issues that do not affect just one particular area, or district," Downey said. "But her position has been, let's let the voters decide what's best . . . If the majority of San Diegans want district elections, we'll have them."

Downey said the district election proposal, also favored by the Sierra Club and other community groups, will be scrutinized by a commission currently being appointed to review the City Charter. Commission members should be selected within two months, he said.

In recent years, lawsuits seeking to force change in election procedures based on allegations of racial discrimination have been brought in cities throughout the country.

Close to home, the U.S. Justice Department stunned city officials in Los Angeles in 1985 by filing a lawsuit charging Mayor Tom Bradley and fellow council members with violating the Voting Rights Act when they adopted a controversial redistricting plan. The civil complaint charged that "a history of official discrimination" was to blame for an absence of any Latinos on the council.

The San Diego suit charges that the use of the at-large general election system "has resulted in the denial and abridgement of the right of San Diego Hispanic Americans to vote."

Specifically, it contends the growth in San Diego's population has created unusually large council districts that have "submerged" the vote of Hispanics and denied them "constitutionally protected access to the political system." San Diego, it notes, is 39% larger than it was in 1965, when the city was divided into eight districts.

"Each district is the size that the entire city was in 1931," Aguirre said. "But still city officials have failed to create any additional districts, which would make the (Hispanic) vote more meaningful."

In addition, the suit alleges that the redrawing of the city's eight districts in 1980 caused the "fragmentation" of Hispanic communities and created "districts with substantial imbalances." It charges that the redistricting--which placed parts of Barrio Logan and Encanto into the 4th District and added a portion of Hillcrest into the 3rd District--was conducted counter to the recommendations of a task force and despite pleas from Hispanics that "their communities be respected."

If the council had drawn political boundaries along lines that were racially and ethnically neutral and recognized the growth of the Hispanic population, it would have increased the chances that a Hispanic would be elected to office, the lawsuit says.

Overall, the complaint concludes, "the system is in fact maintained for the purpose of keeping the status quo power structure in control of San Diego city government."

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