Fullerton settles election lawsuit, agrees to put district system before voters (updated)

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The city of Fullerton has settled a lawsuit against its at-large voting system by agreeing to design a district-based approach and put it before voters in November 2016.

The suit, brought in March by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles and the ACLU of Southern California, alleged that Fullerton's at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act by denying Asian-Americans and other minorities the ability to elect candidates of their choice.

Under the terms of the settlement, Fullerton agreed to hire a demographics expert to help it develop district maps, and to hold a series of community meetings and public hearings to get the public's input before finalizing maps that voters will accept or reject in the November 2016 election.

The agreement also settles a second, earlier voting rights suit against the city brought in July 2014 on behalf of its Latino citizens. 

With at-large voting, registered voters, no matter which part of a city they live in, get to vote for all candidates.

Critics of the at-large approach claim it allows majority groups to dilute the voting power of federally protected minority groups such as Asian-Americans, Latinos and blacks.

Asian-Americans make up 23 percent of Fullerton's population, but none of the city council members are Asian American, according to the lawsuit. 

Fullerton agreed in the settlement to hire David Ely of Compass Demographics to help develop one or more district boundary maps. Ely has also helped Whittier design district maps.

Fullerton must hold at least two community meetings in each of the city's four "geographic quadrants" to collect the public's input on how district lines should be drawn, and it must then hold at least three public hearings on the final proposals, according to the legal agreement.

Once the district maps are finalized after the public hearings, the city will place a measure on the November 2016 ballot asking Fullerton voters to approve or reject them.

The attorney who represented Fullerton in both lawsuits said there was no need for the ACLU and Asian Americans Advancing Justice to sue in March, since by then the city had already agreed to settle the original suit by designing district maps and putting them before the voters in Nov. 2016.

"It was unfortunate that they elected to file despite the fact that we had already agreed to put this on the ballot," said Kimberly Hall Barlow of the Jones & Mayer law firm.

An ACLU lawyer who worked on the Asian-American lawsuit disagreed. 

Since the July 2014 suit was filed on behalf of Fullerton's Latinos, "we thought it was important to file suit on behalf of the Asian-American community so it had a seat at the negotiating table" as lawyers hammered out the terms of the settlement, said Brendan Hamme, staff attorney in the ACLU of Southern California's Orange County office.

Hamme maintained the final settlement was "improved substantially" over earlier versions because his team was involved in the negotiations. He pointed to the numerical requirements for community meetings and public hearings as one example, saying there now will be "an extremely robust community input process."

This latest lawsuit is part of a larger trend taking place across California. Voters in Anaheim, for example, chose in November to move to a district-based election system, but only after Anaheim city officials fought the lawsuit, which cost more than $1 million in legal fees.

Garden Grove is considering making a similar switch. Last month, it hired a demographic firm to determine whether its at-large system produces racially-unbalanced election results. The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund had threatened to sue the city over its election system.

"We hope the residents of Fullerton will come out in full force during the community meetings to inform the city how they define their neighborhoods and communities of interest," said Deanna Kitamura, supervising attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice's Democracy Project.  "We will be monitoring the mapping process and advocating that communities are kept whole during the line drawing process."

This story has been updated.