City, Latino Group Clear 1 Hurdle in Election Suit

Times Staff Writer

Attorneys for the city of San Diego and the Chicano Federation hammered out a compromise Monday in a lawsuit filed by the group over minority voting rights. However, the possibility remains that a federal judge might cancel the City Council elections scheduled for Sept. 19.

Both sides met for almost 90 minutes in a settlement conference in the chambers of U. S. Magistrate Harry McCue, but declined to discuss specifics of the proposed agreement. Federation attorney Patricia Meyer said the proposal "addresses the arguments raised in our lawsuit" and it will be up to the City Council to decide whether to accept the compromise or have a federal judge rule on the issues.

Because the council is in a monthlong recess, Deputy City Atty. Kenneth So said he does not expect council members to vote on the proposal until Sept. 12, and he declined comment on the settlement.

Both Sides to Return

U. S. District Judge John S. Rhoades, who is presiding in the civil suit filed by the federation, ordered both sides to return to court Sept. 13 to discuss the council's reaction to the proposed settlement.

Rhoades also scheduled a hearing for Sept. 15, when he will hear arguments in the lawsuit, which was filed in January, 1988. The hearing was scheduled primarily to afford Meyer an opportunity to offer a response in the event that the council rejects the proposal. Rhoades held open the possibility that he could decide then to cancel the Sept. 19 council elections.

The Chicano Federation suit initially charged that San Diego's two-tiered council elections--district primaries followed by citywide runoffs between the two top vote-getters in each district--was unconstitutional because it made it almost impossible to elect a Latino council member.

The city's attorneys tried unsuccessfully to have the lawsuit dismissed this year by arguing that San Diego voters approved a district-only initiative in November, rendering the suit moot. Rhoades rejected that request. The Sept. 19 election, in which four council seats are at stake, would be the first district-only election for the council.

Earlier this month, Rhoades allowed the Chicano Federation to supplement the lawsuit by calling for additional remedies. Meyers argued for an increase in the number of council seats and for redistricting, or the redrawing of council boundaries, to be done by an independent board, rather than the council.

If council members go along with the proposals contained in the lawsuit, or if Rhoades rules in favor of the Chicano Federation, voters will be allowed to decide whether an independent commission should handle the politically sensitive job of redrawing council boundaries. Voters would also be allowed to decide whether the number of council districts should be increased from eight to 10.

Timetable at Issue

The federation and the city are also at odds over when redistricting should be accomplished. Meyer said the federation wants the new boundaries to be drawn by May, 1991, using 1990 census figures, in time for the September, 1991, elections. The city wants the boundaries redrawn next year.

Rhoades has threatened to postpone district elections until June, 1990, unless both sides reach agreement on a new proposal. He has also warned the city that he may allow the election to proceed, but later declare it invalid if he finds that the existing election system is unconstitutional. If he does invalidate the Sept. 19 election, Rhoades said, he will order a new one.

Meyer said she is pleased with the compromise reached with the city's attorneys.

"Obviously, there has been some compromise, but it addresses the arguments raised in the lawsuit. . . . There is no reason to believe that my client will not go along with this proposal," she said.

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