Officials balk at voting districts

About a year ago, Councilman Ara Najarian moved four miles south from his home on a quiet, tree-lined street in the Montecito Park area in North Glendale to the denser city center.

“I see the parking issue first-hand. I see the noise issue first-hand. I see the large-item pick-up issue first hand,” said Najarian, who was first elected to the council in 2005. “I’ve heard about these before, but until you’re actually living there, you don’t feel the pain that the others have.”

In the past three decades, records show, only one council member has lived below the Ventura (134) Freeway at the time they were elected — and that was in Adams Hill, a neighborhood filled with architecturally-rich homes and vintage lampposts.

The other four current City Council members live north of the freeway, an area of the city known for its historic and more affluent neighborhoods. The area south of the freeway is home to much of the city’s industrial and commercial activity and contains considerably less open space, as well as most of Glendale’s multi-family housing. In addition, the densest Latino and Armenian populations reside south of the freeway.

Glendale elects its office holders at-large, meaning elected officials can live anywhere within the city limits. However, a study commissioned by Glendale Unified School District and Glendale Community College may challenge the status quo.

The California Voting Rights Act mandates districts if a particular racial group has been traditionally disenfranchised by an at-large system, said Paul Mitchell, of Sacramento’s Redistricting Partners, who conducted the study.

He lists two possible plans splitting Glendale into five districts. Each plan would lump most current and former council members since the 1980s into one district.

The four most Latino neighborhoods — Pacific-Edison, Riverside-Rancho, Grand Central and Tropico — have not elected anyone to office in the past three decades, records show. About 30% of the population of those neighborhoods are Latino.

Though considerably smaller in population than Glendale, Pasadena adopted election districts several years ago over concern of federal rules protecting minority votes.

But city and education officials in Glendale have balked at the study’s findings. They say Glendale, despite being the third largest city in Los Angeles County, is too small for districts, which would fracture the city and possibly lead to vote swapping and the disenfranchisement of Glendale’s largest minority, Armenians.

Douglas Johnson, founder of National Demographics Corporation in Glendale, said the city is in a gray area based on size.

“At some point, cities become too big to have at-large [elections],” he said, noting that those with populations of less than 175,000 tend to have at-large voting, while those greater than 250,000 have districts. Those in between, like Glendale, at about 190,000 people, often begin weighing the pros and cons.

Mitchell and Johnson agreed that Glendale’s voting patterns don’t appear to be particularly racially polarized. In the hypothetical districts shown in Mitchell’s report, one precinct would be made up of about 25% of Latino residents of voting age. But demographic experts disagree on whether that’s enough to prompt a Voting Rights Act violation.

Some say the minority percentage should be closer to 50%.

“Glendale’s certainly not high on the list of hot targets like Escondido or Compton,” Douglas said.

But Mitchell said that shouldn’t keep attorneys for Glendale’s two education systems from reviewing legal vulnerabilities. Cerritos Community College District is being sued over racially polarized voting.

Schools tend to look at the race issue more often than cities, but it’s not often that a school’s study prompts the entire city to follow suit, Mitchell said.

City Atty. Mike Garcia said Glendale hasn’t reviewed the legal implications of its voting patterns, but is reviewing the schools’ study.

The redistricting question has cropped up many times in Glendale’s history. Some residents in the past have started signature-gathering efforts to get the issue on the ballot, but they’ve all failed, said former Councilman Bob Yousefian.

If the city were split into districts, the strong Armenian vote, which has grown since the 1990s, would be diluted since Armenians couldn’t vote in as solid a bloc as they can now, officials said.

Asians tend to live in the Foothills, while Latinos reside in Southwest Glendale, according to the schools’ study. But Mitchell said there weren’t enough Asians to create an Asian-majority district. Districts should be equal in size, he said. Armenians have higher concentrations in South Glendale, but are spread throughout the city.

“The bottom line is that districting will reduce choice for voters,” said Mayor Laura Friedman.

Councilman Rafi Manoukian, who lives in the Chevy Chase neighborhood nestled between the San Rafael Hills and Scholl Canyon in North Glendale, swept the city’s southern voting precincts in last year’s election. Anglo candidates, including former Councilman John Drayman and Councilman Dave Weaver, took home most of the northern precincts.

Officials also point to how diverse the City Council dais is now, compared to years past, when all-white, all-male City Councils were the norm. The City Council currently consists of two Armenians, one Latino, one white woman and one white male.

“The majority of Glendale is pretty well represented on council,” Manoukian said.

But Mitchell said evidence of past diverse elections can’t be a rationale for not having districts if racially polarized voting exists.

“If you look at the history of civil rights cases, that argument has been used a lot and, generally, it’s been unsuccessful,” he said.

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