Rivals Disagree on Impact of At-Large Elections Ruling

Times Staff Writers

In a reflection of the politically volatile nature of the issue, there was widespread disagreement in San Diego political and legal circles over the local impact, if any, of a federal appeals court decision Wednesday that says at-large local elections discriminate against Latinos.

While district-election advocates predicted that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling in a Watsonville, Calif., case will invalidate the citywide election systems used in San Diego, Chula Vista and National City, officials in those cities argued that the court decision may have little effect here.

"The ballgame's over and we've won," said an elated Michael Aguirre, the lead attorney in a federal lawsuit aimed at overturning the at-large election systems used in the three cities.

'This Isn't the End'

But San Diego City Atty. John Witt, echoing comments made by National City and Chula Vista officials, argued that it is too early to accept that interpretation, and suggested that Wednesday's court ruling ultimately may have little impact on the local lawsuit.

"It's not as simple as Aguirre perhaps would like to think," Witt said. "This isn't the end, and we're not ready to fold our case."

Despite those divergent viewpoints, the two sides agree that the 9th Circuit decision's potential impact on San Diego hinges on the similarities and differences between the local election system and that used in Watsonville.

The appeals court ruled that Watsonville's at-large elections illegally diluted the voting strength of the city's 48.9% Latino population. Noting that none of the eight Latino candidates who ran for office between 1971 and 1985 were elected, the justices ruled that the city's electoral system itself, not low turnout among Latinos, was primarily responsible for those unsuccessful campaigns in the Santa Cruz County farming community.

Jess Haro, chairman of the board of directors of the Chicano Federation of San Diego County--the group that filed the local lawsuit--argued Wednesday that the basic issues raised in the suit against the three local cities are essentially the same as those in the Watsonville case.

"The immediate thing we'll do is go to the (San Diego) mayor and the (City) Council and ask that they recognize the present system as unconstitutional and unlawful and see if we can resolve it," Haro said. "Before this, the mayor has shown no inclination to deal with us. Perhaps after this decision she'll be more reasonable."

But Witt and others contended that Watsonville's electoral system and certain key facts in that case differ sufficiently from the situation in San Diego to raise questions about the ruling's applicability here. Those differences include:

- Watsonville voting is conducted under a strictly at-large method, while San Diego council candidates are nominated by voters in each of the city's eight districts, with the top two vote-getters in each district competing in a citywide runoff.

- Latinos make up only about 15% of San Diego's population, and only about half of them are eligible to vote, figures far lower than those in Watsonville.

- In contrast to Latinos' inability to win in Watsonville over a 15-year period, several Latino candidates--including Haro himself--have been elected to the San Diego council during that time. The most recent Latino elected to the council was Uvaldo Martinez, who won a 1983 race that followed his earlier appointment to fill a vacancy.

Similarly, Chula Vista City Atty. Tom Harron, noting that Latinos make up about 30% of the population in his city, argued that the "difference (in) the demographic statistics" between Watsonville and the South Bay community would limit the case's impact there. Despite Wednesday's ruling, Chula Vista plans to continue to oppose the district-election plan requested in the local lawsuit, Harron added.

Chula Vista, which has a mayor and four council members, has previously examined the possibility of dividing the city into four or five districts, he said. But city leaders found "that we couldn't get a district that was mostly Hispanic," Harron said.

National City Mayor George Waters, meanwhile, also said that he does not anticipate any change in his city's policy toward district elections. Like Chula Vista, National City's government includes a mayor and four council members elected at-large.

The Chicano Federation lawsuit calls for the establishment of 12 council districts within San Diego to replace the current eight, with members being elected in district-only races. Under such a system, proponents argue, minority populations could be concentrated in individual districts, permitting black and Latino candidates to control perhaps three seats. Currently, 4th District Councilman Wes Pratt is the only minority member serving on the council.

As in the Watsonville case, Aguirre and others contend that the at-large runoff feature of San Diego's current electoral system illegally dilutes minorities' voting strength. A district election system, they argue, would allow minorities--as well as residents of other geographically compact areas--to more directly influence the election of their council members.

Opponents, however, argue that district elections would cause council members to be more concerned with the parochial needs of their own districts than with citywide issues.

Aguirre expressed the hope that Wednesday's ruling will persuade San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor to drop the city's opposition to the lawsuit and establish district elections.

"This ruling basically means that San Diego's system is gone," he said. "There's an easy way and a hard way to take the next step. The easy way is for the mayor to bring the city into compliance with the law. The hard way is to continue to fight it in court.

"Either way, the outcome is going to be the same. The only difference is that, if they go to court, they'll end up wasting a lot of money and still lose."

Mayoral press secretary Paul Downey, however, said that because the matter is in litigation, O'Connor, who opposes district elections, "has no intention of sitting down with Mr. Aguirre or anyone at this point" to negotiate a change in the city's election system.

In addition to the lawsuit, district elections also are the subject of an initiative on the November ballot. A group calling itself Neighborhoods for District Elections gathered nearly 50,000 valid signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. It is similar to four other district-only measures rejected by voters over the last 20 years.

"Since it's on the ballot, I doubt that we would want to take away people's right to decide the question by collapsing in federal court," City Atty. Witt said. "Regardless of what happened (Wednesday) and what it does or doesn't mean to us, this thing has a long way to go before it's over."

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