At-large voting: Latino handicap?


The way Juana Trejo remembers it, the heavy double doors of Costa Mesa’s City Council chambers hit her on the way in.

She stood in the doorway. A sea of unfamiliar faces turned to look at her. Some were laughing.

It was her first time at City Hall, some seven or eight years ago, she recalled in Spanish on a recent Friday night, and she did not feel welcome.


“They said, ‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’” she said, describing the response she got from the dais. Community organizer Andrew Hausermann translated for this interview.

What she wanted, Trejo said, was a neighborhood cleanup.

“Because we’re tired of our neighborhood being dirty,” she remembered telling the council. “We’re tired of having our walls covered in graffiti. We want a more healthy and safe place for our families.”

Things, she said, have improved.

The neighborhoods she has called home for 21 years, Shalimar and Mission Mendoza, are indeed cleaner, thanks to the assistance that eventually came. Gang-intervention programs have seen success.

But as Costa Mesa’s Latino population has grown, Hispanic residents say that feeling of detachment from city government hasn’t gone away. In this city of almost 112,000 — where about 36% of the population is Latino but no City Council member has ever identified as such — what some residents say is an imbalance in representation is facing increasing scrutiny.

Costa Mesa is one of dozens of cities statewide facing mounting pressure to switch from at-large elections — meaning officials are elected from the whole city — to districted voting systems, where council members are elected to represent a certain region of the city. Such systems, many say, better foster minority representation.

If state leaders are successful, that pressure could lead to sweeping changes in the way Costa Mesa residents elect their leaders.

“We’re here, we want to be seen,” said 22-year-old Oswaldo Farias, who has lived in Costa Mesa for most of his life, “but it hasn’t really been reflected in local policymakers.”

Local officials say that the current system is working fine and that separating the city into districts would prove divisive.

A 13-member charter committee has been tasked with drafting a document that, if approved by voters, could enshrine an election system that some say has effectively shut out a significant segment of the community — one that watched in fear as the city took some of the state’s most stringent and controversial measures against illegal immigration several years ago.

Though the idea of building council districts into the charter was dismissed by members of the committee, experts say the issue is not likely to go away.

“This is coming,” said Chapman University political science associate professor Fred Smoller, who closely follows local government. “It’s a big deal, and it’s really going to change politics in Orange County.”


A demographic shift from old Goat Hill

Since Costa Mesa was incorporated six decades ago, homes, hotels and labyrinthine shopping centers have filled in areas that were rolling farmland once known as Goat Hill.

The city’s population has multiplied many times over, from a 15,000-person “village serving farmers in the hinterlands,” as longtime resident Hank Panian put it, to an “economically complex,” mid-sized city wedged between the relative ethnic and socioeconomic homogeneity of Newport Beach — which is about 87% white — and the bustling county seat, Santa Ana, which is about 78% Latino.

Like much of the state, Costa Mesa has seen large shifts in its ethnic composition within the past two decades.

In 1990, Census data show, the vast majority of Costa Mesans were white. By 2010, more than a third of Costa Mesa residents identified as Latino. Just less than 8% were Asian and 1.5% were African American.

While those populations are mixed throughout the city, the Westside — which encompasses some of the city’s denser, lower-income neighborhoods and industrial zones — is strongly Latino.

The area, generally west of Newport Boulevard and roughly bounded by Joann and West 16th streets, is nearly 70% Latino, according to Census data analyzed by the Daily Pilot and the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, some of the most affluent neighborhoods, such as Mesa Verde and parts of the Eastside bordering Newport Beach, are the most dominantly white.

The area east of Newport Boulevard, and near the Upper Newport Bay, for example, is almost 80% white.

A large region of the city including Orange Coast College and the Orange County Fairgrounds, along with the neighborhoods of Mesa del Mar and College Park, is more diverse, with similar percentages of white and Latino residents. The area is also home to much of Costa Mesa’s Asian population.


At-large districts may affect council makeup

Costa Mesa’s method of electing its local leaders, however, hasn’t changed since its 1953 incorporation.

As is the case in all but a few Orange County cities, its City Council is made up of five members elected at-large to four-year terms. Council members, not voters, select a mayor and mayor pro tem from among their ranks.

That means everyone in the city can vote for any council candidate. It also means that, in theory, all five council members could live in the same part of town.

The current members don’t, though three live proximate to one another.

Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger live near each other in tony Mesa Verde, while Councilwoman Sandy Genis lives on the neighborhood’s outskirts. Councilman Gary Monahan lives on the Eastside, a generally upper-middle class area, and Councilwoman Wendy Leece lives on the more blue-collar Westside, albeit in a more upscale tract.

The lack of minority representation on city councils is a growing problem statewide, said Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina).

“Communities have now grown to 10 to 20 times their original population number,” he said. “Neighborhoods are different now.”

Hernandez recently introduced a bill that would require general law cities with populations of 100,000 or more to elect council members by district.

The idea, Hernandez said, is to “best serve our diverse population, with voting systems in place that give people the best shot of being represented.”

As officials are disproportionately elected from wealthier parts of town, he said, neighborhoods that don’t have advocates on governing bodies have less of a voice.

In Anaheim, for example, advocates for a districted system have said the city’s political clout is centered in picturesque — and wealthier — Anaheim Hills, rather than its denser core, where incomes tend to be lower and demographics more Latino.

After multiple interview requests, neither Anaheim’s mayor, Tom Tait, nor mayor pro tem, Kris Murray, could be reached for comment.

Beyond ethnicity, community members and experts say, representation is a matter of understanding a neighborhood’s specific needs.

Seal Beach Mayor Ellery Deaton said councilmanic districts have helped ensure the unique safety and business needs of her city’s Old Town — which helps attract some 2 million annual visitors to the city — are addressed.

Representatives are able to really know their districts and are then able to better educate their council fellows.

Deaton said a citywide spirit can still be maintained. She explained that the seniors of Leisure World understand that Old Town residents’ concerns may differ from their own, but “they don’t want people drowning at our beach either.”

The coastal town of just under 25,000 residents — about 10,000 of whom live in Leisure World — is the only Orange County city to hold elections by district. Santa Ana and Newport Beach both have councils broken into districts, but the votes are cast citywide, meaning, for example, that someone in Corona del Mar can vote for a council candidate who lives on the Balboa Peninsula.

Deaton said Seal Beach residents voted for councilmanic districts in the 1960s, when its city charter was passed.

Though not the norm, districts are somewhat more common in Los Angeles County, where larger cities like Pasadena, Downey, Long Beach and the city of Los Angeles elect council members by district.

There is some support for the idea in Costa Mesa.

“I think districts are a good idea and, like other cities — Anaheim, for example — we may eventually be forced by courts,” Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece wrote in an email. “Plus, you go the extra mile to solve problems [and] note accomplishments in your own district.”

Leece added that the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, on whose board she formerly served, has been served well by a district system.

The Mesa Water District and Coast Community College District are also divided into districts.


A history of immigration issues

In Costa Mesa, a strongly conservative council sparked controversy by proposing to deputize police officers as immigration agents in 2005, earning the city a reputation as the heart of Orange County conservatism. Then in 2010, then-Mayor Allan Mansoor (now an assemblyman) asked the council to declare Costa Mesa a “rule of law city” that’s tough on illegal immigration.

Before that, Costa Mesa limited how day laborers could hold signs and solicit work — an idea that many felt was aimed at Latinos and one that didn’t stand up in court.

Yet the bitterness engendered during those battles hasn’t bubbled over into the same level of unrest that has sparked changes in Anaheim and Santa Ana. Some members of Costa Mesa’s Latino community say lingering fears are in part to blame for hesitation about entering the political arena.

On that recent Friday night, Trejo sat in a circle of friends from around the city who had gathered in the Bravo family’s living room, its light filtering through the screen door onto the darkened block off Harbor Boulevard.

A plate of cookies sat untouched as they told their stories, parents and children talking and laughing in a mixture of Spanish and English.

Enrique Bravo, 43, described meeting his wife in Costa Mesa about 23 years ago, before returning to Mexico, where they started their family.

When their three children were still young, they again settled in the city, where they have made a life.

“It’s a nice, peaceful city, but it’s kind of weird for people like us,” he said, adding that at the height of the city’s efforts to bring in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it was difficult to speak out.

His 20-year-old son Luis remembered another dust-up.

After neighbors of Paularino Park complained about noise and other issues there, the city installed boulders and trees to enforce a ban on “active sports.”

For friends who had played soccer at the small park, Luis Bravo said, the move was confusing and left a bad taste in their mouths.

When such decisions are on the table, the Bravos said, it’s been a struggle to find a reliable ear at City Hall.

Isabel Sevilla, a longtime community activist, said it was frustrating to see the council vote against the wishes of hundreds of residents who opposed a string of decisions that hit hard the immigrant community, such as the controversial closing of the Costa Mesa Job Center in 2005.

The 38-year-old, who chatted at a coffee shop after her day’s work as a baby-sitter was through, said representation for the Westside didn’t need to come in the form of a Latino council member.

The community, she said, just needs someone to listen.

“They have no idea who we are,” Sevilla said.


Strong support for status quo

Some officials contend that taking a district approach would be inappropriate in Costa Mesa, that having elections citywide requires leaders to be held accountable to everyone.

Worse, Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) said in an emailed statement, “using race to divide our communities to further political objectives detracts from the dream of a color-blind society.”

“Recent efforts to bring districts to cities with at-large elections seem to be motivated by politics rather than a desire to promote civic engagement,” said Mansoor, a candidate for the Orange County Board of Supervisors. “There are countless examples of candidates winning elections in areas where they represent a minority demographic.”

While the state is now almost 40% Latino, Hernandez said, Latinos hold only about 10% of locally elected seats.

That could change in Costa Mesa. In November, Lee Ramos — an Eastside resident who has lived in the city since 1947 — will be on the ballot, running to become the city’s first Latino council member.

Though he is not making race an issue in his campaign, the soft-spoken 70-year-old garnered attention simply by entering the field. The city does not track the ethnicity of council candidates, unless they identify themselves as such, but Ramos is apparently the second known Latino candidate in recent memory.

The last Latino candidate was local business owner and community activist Mirna Burciaga, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for City Council in 2006. She declined to comment for this story.

Ramos doesn’t plan to make any special effort to reach out to the Latino community; he views everyone in the city as potential constituents.

“Even though I’m Hispanic, I look at the whole city,” he said. “I look at everyone as being equal — Eastside, Westside, Northside.”

As a member of the city’s charter committee, Ramos voted with nine of his colleagues against a proposal to consider districts, which was brought before the panel by Panian in October.

Breaking up the city into councilmanic districts, he said, would “limit all the talent we have in the city.”

That said, he wouldn’t be opposed to giving the issue another look, if that’s what voters told him they wanted.

Righeimer, who supports Ramos, echoed that, saying that the choice about whether to go to district elections should rest with a given city’s voters — not with the state Legislature.

He added that he was concerned that adding some kind of district system into the charter proposal before it goes to voters in November could jeopardize its chances of being approved.

“I don’t have any problem with, once the charter passes, putting it on the ballot,” he said.

For now, Righeimer said, “I think citizens of the community are well-represented.”


Sacramento could make the decision

Ready or not, changes may be edging from Sacramento toward Costa Mesa.

Hernandez’s bill, as proposed, would force Costa Mesa to rework its system, so long as it remains a general law city rather than one governed by a charter.

Or, like an increasing number of cities, Costa Mesa could eventually face legal battles over its compliance with the California Voting Rights Act. The law, which was passed in 2001, aims to prevent cities from using at-large election systems to dilute the influence of minority groups.

Though no legal action is pending, Bardis Vakili, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who worked on the recent suit against Anaheim, said Costa Mesa’s history may put it on the radar.

There’s no “bright-line rule” about whether a city should further explore a different voting system, Vakili said. Nevertheless, he said, “Based on some of their policies, it behooves Costa Mesa to look at their voting patterns.”

Justin Levitt, an associate professor at Loyola Law School who testified as an expert witness for plaintiffs who sued Palmdale over California Voting Rights Act violations, cautioned that showing that a city’s minority populations vote differently from the majority is key; it’s not enough to merely point out pockets of ethnic minorities that aren’t proportionally represented in a city.

“What it really depends on is it’s actually not the race of candidates or elected officials,” he said. “It’s the preference of minority communities.”

And “it’s incredibly difficult” to get data that could prove minority populations tend to vote for different candidates.

“It’s part of why voting-rights cases are both complicated and expensive,” he said, “because you need experts to do that.”

Another complicating factor for Costa Mesa and cities around the state is how the state’s Voting Rights Act applies to charter cities, which are given more authority over their own governance under California’s constitution.

Merely having at-large elections drawn into a Costa Mesa city charter wouldn’t necessarily immunize its practices against legal challenge.

Levitt added that drawing districts isn’t the only way to comply with voting-rights laws.

Cities can implement different voting procedures, such as ranked-choice ballots, or systems in which each resident has a certain number of votes and can use them however he or she desires.


Disenchantment could field candidates

Christine Nolf, executive director and co-founder of Mika Community Development Corp., which works with residents of Shalimar and other heavily Latino neighborhoods, is someone who has the ear of City Hall. Though not Latina, she advocates strongly for the community’s needs.

In an interview, Nolf, who used to write a column for the Daily Pilot, said that leadership among Costa Mesa’s Latinos comes in different forms.

In some homes, time is scarce and language barriers make the idea of stepping into public life inconceivable.

But disenchantment with city government hasn’t prevented residents in less-represented communities from making strides within their own neighborhoods, she said.

“Internal personal obstacles take a lot of time and years to overcome,” she said. “We have people I know are capable.”

Mika’s leadership programs encourage residents to get involved with their kids’ schools or connect in church.

Jessica Bravo, 19, said she hopes things will change. Though she can’t vote because she is not an American citizen, she has led campaigns to register her eligible peers.

“I think our community is waking up, and it’s realizing that we need someone to represent us,” she said. “I think also a message for our council members as well is that we’re here. They need as much from us as we need from them, and it’s a mutual relationship we want to build.”

Farias said he’d consider sticking around to help better his hometown.

“I do want to go into public office,” he said, his eyes laughing, a shy grin spreading across his face. “This would be a great place to start.”

Sandra Poindexter of the Los Angeles Times’ data desk contributed to this report.