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Whittier takes key step toward establishing council districts

For much of its history, Whittier was an overwhelmingly white, conservative town — a place President Nixon once called home.

Demographic changes in recent decades have given Latinos a nearly 2-to-1 majority in the city of 86,000 residents. But officials said they could recall only two Latinos ever having served on the City Council — none currently.

In June voters narrowly approved a measure to switch from at-large to district elections in council races. The measure was put on the ballot by the City Council, which had been sued by advocates pushing for greater Latino representation.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Whittier voting: In the Oct. 16 LATExtra section, an article about Whittier’s move toward district-based City Council elections said that the California Voting Rights Act was approved in 2001. It was approved in 2002.
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Tuesday night, the City Council took a key step toward implementing the law, voting unanimously to create a community participation plan for input on what the four district boundaries should look like.

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The issue has generated debate in the quaint, largely middle-class city that some refer to as Mayberry.

“Things have changed, but in Whittier it was still like we were back in the 1940s,” said Miguel Garcia, a longtime resident and a member of the Whittier Voters Coalition. “We need representation, we deserve representation and it will be a positive change for the entire city.”

The new law calls for district elections starting in 2016, with council terms lasting four years. The mayor will be elected at-large every two years. Garcia, one of three plaintiffs in the voting-rights lawsuit, said he believes this will open the door for a more diverse council.

But others aren’t sure the district voting will dramatically change the council makeup.

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“At the end of the day the voters vote for the person who they think is most qualified,” said Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Dutra, who is a native of Portugal. “I have a hard time seeing how someone can feel they’re not properly represented because maybe our last name is not Hernandez or Lopez. We’re all the same.”

Even so, Dutra voted in favor of the plan for residents and other interested parties to meet with a consultant hired to help draw the boundaries.

Whittier’s switch to a single-member district election system follows a larger trend in California cities, said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. While that trend started 20 to 25 years ago, Regalado said it has picked up speed since the passage of the California Voting Rights Act in 2001.

“It will continue on until the vast majority of cities that continue to be at-large and who have very diverse populations are willing to change and do in fact change,” Regalado said. “It’ll come more rapidly than it has in the past.”

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While there are some holdouts, such as Palmdale, he said it’s a losing proposition to keep an at-large system and it will cost taxpayers and cities money in legal battles.

While once-mostly white cities in places such as Southeast L.A. County were re-made by the influx of Latino immigrants, Whittier saw a wave of Latino doctors and lawyers, small business owners and other professionals — many of whom grew up in working class neighborhoods including Boyle Heights and East L.A.

But Whittier’s relatively better-off Latino population has not translated into dramatically increased representation at City Hall.

Over the next few months, people will be given the chance to weigh in on forming the districts, taking into account neighborhood concerns and common interests.

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“We will really try our very best to do this as openly and transparently as possible,” said City Councilman Bob Henderson. “We’re all engaged in this issue and we want to see it done right.”

Some residents said the problem isn’t the at-large voting system, but low participation by Latinos.

“I wasn’t really in favor of changing,” said Sam Guyan, a member of the local League of Women Voters chapter. “I think a lot of us thought we had an opportunity to vote and if people weren’t voting they just weren’t being informed or weren’t taking the effort.”

To head off potential apathy, the Whittier Voters Coalition is already preparing for the first district election, two years away. Members are educating voters on voting by mail and will submit their own maps on potential districts.

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Through this process, Garcia said he hopes to see a diverse City Council soon.

“It can be a debilitating psychological observation when you see successful people or successful institutions and you don’t see representation from your group,” Garcia said. “We have gained so much and now Whittier is next.”

brittny.mejia@latimes.com
Twitter: @brittny_mejia


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