Commentary: There are better alternatives for Latino representation than Measure EE

Late last year a Malibu-based law firm sent the city a letter telling us that we were violating the state and federal voting rights laws by allowing all five of our council members to be elected at-large. The theory was that the 37% of Costa Mesans who are Latino are being disenfranchised, so we need to elect our representatives in a “voting-by-districts” scheme that would provide Latinos the opportunity to elect someone who was closely in tune with the Latino community and, therefore, do a better job of representing their interests.

Costa Mesa has existed for more than 60 years and has never had a Latino elected to public office. That does not mean the Latinos were not represented, just that none sat on the dais to help make decisions.

The council negotiated a settlement with the law firm and agreed to place the issue before the voters. Part of that deal was to hire a consultant/demographer to do the analysis necessary to carve up the city into voting districts using census data and community input. David Ely, an expert on these issues, was hired. The process Ely followed was to first hold small meetings to discuss ideas on the correct configuration. He then held a series of larger group meetings — I attended them — during which he presented his first slice at this issue, invited comments and then went back to the drawing board for refinements. Each plan carved out a Westside “Latino” district.

Somewhere along the way there mysteriously appeared a choice that included six districts and included a directly elected mayor; the council must have an odd number. I asked Ely where that came from and was told that a council member asked for it. During the above-mentioned meetings, not a single person thought it was a good choice. Most participants favored one of the two, five-district plans.

However, when it came time for the council to choose which option to place before the voters, following lengthy discussions by council members and many members of the public, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer suggested the six districts, plus the directly-elected mayor, option. His proposal would provide a two-year term for the mayor, limited to two terms.

We presume the current term-limit rules for council members would remain in place: two consecutive, four-year terms before being termed-out. Under our current system the mayor is selected from among the council members for a two-year term. Under the five-district options that would remain the practice, one that has served this city quite well for more than six decades.

When the vote was taken, Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Katrina Foley supported a five-district plan, but that was rejected on a 2-3 vote. Righeimer’s choice, seconded by Mayor Steve Mensinger, passed, 3-2, with Foley and Genis voting no.

If the goal is to give Latinos a greater voice, going to six districts and a directly elected mayor does not accomplish that goal. It dilutes it. With five districts, one of which would be dominated by Latinos, there is roughly a 20% chance of having a Latino elected. Under the six-district option, that Latino-dominated district would have only a 1-in-7 chance — just over 14% — of electing a Latino, and that voice would be muted.

If Measure EE is defeated by the voters, there will be several options ahead. One would be to negotiate a new districting plan and allow the law firm to file in civil court to get court approval and avoid another election. In any event, we, the city, pays the costs on both sides. One way or the other, we will have district voting. The earliest election in which this change could take place would be November 2018.

Measure EE should be rejected by the voters, forcing consideration of a more reasonable option — one that does not twist the intent for purely political purposes. And that consideration does not have to break the bank in legal fees, either.

If Measure EE is defeated, there remains several other options that could be considered, at little additional cost, that retain the true spirit of this change: to try to provide Costa Mesa Latinos with greater representation.

Costa Mesa resident GEOFF WEST is the publisher of A Bubbling Cauldron.