By Megan Showalter
Vivian “Kitty” Jaramillo has lived in Fullerton and her neighborhood — a mostly working class area in the southern part of town — all her life. Jaramillo recalls that, while growing up in Fullerton, she never had a Latino from her neighborhood represent her or her community on city council.
“It’s not like we all haven’t tried, but it’s hard. You’ve got to have money and big backers,” said Jaramillo, who tried running twice herself.
She and another plaintiff — Jonathan Paik, who was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union — sued, in 2014 and 2015, respectively, for more equitable elections under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. This led Fullerton to create districts for city council elections. Candidates in other cities such as Anaheim and Mission Viejo have also sued under the Act.
For many years, most cities in California have elected their city council members in an at-large election system. That means all residents vote, sometimes casting multiple votes, for the candidates of their choice and the top vote-getters are awarded the available seats.
Now, citizens, especially those who represent a minority group in their community, are calling foul on these systems because it’s hard to compete at-large in a city unless you have monetary means and are from a certain demographic background, according to those who have tried to run before.
Graphic created by Megan Showalter with 2010 census information from Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Demographic Research.
Jaramillo was unsuccessful in her two bids for city council, and when a lawyer began filling suits throughout California, State Senator Josh Newman got a hold of Jaramillo.
“He said, ‘Kitty, I thought of you. I voted for you those two times you ran,’” said Jaramillo, whose neighborhood is primarily Hispanic.
Unlike other cities who had seen “the writing on the wall” and started changing their elections to be compliant with the voting rights act, Fullerton was ready to fight it, according to Jaramillo. Before Jaramillo started the suit, her lawyer, Kevin Shenkman, had contacted the city three times asking if they had any plans to change their elections. Jaramillo says that he did not receive a response.
Other cities in Orange County, like Anaheim, have settled these suits by asking residents to vote up or down on district-based elections, where each segment of the city can elect a representative who lives in their particular part of the community to the city council.
Some cities, such as Mission Viejo, believe that their minority populations are spread throughout the city and would not benefit from a district-based election. They have refused to settle the claim and are looking for alternative solutions.
In 2016, Fullerton residents voted to move toward district-based council elections by approving “map 8,” a submission from Slide Bar owner Jeremy Popoff. This November, for the first time residents in districts three and five will be electing their representatives to city council. In 2020, the other three districts of one, two, and four will have their chance to do the same.
“I was very supportive of the process in Anaheim, and a couple months later I found myself on the opposite end in Fullerton,” said Ryan Cantor, a Fullerton resident.
Cantor had a small role in writing the argument for district voting on the Anaheim ballot, but he actually wrote the argument against district elections in Fullerton. Cantor also submitted several district maps during the community process.
He said his goal was to highlight something in each potential district that the community could rally behind and which makes the whole of Fullerton better.
“What we ended up with is a map that is dedicated to celebrating downtown,” said Cantor.
The map that the city council ended up choosing for the ballot did not go through the community meetings and seemed to have a different goal in mind, according to Cantor.
The city’s process of selecting “map 8” was called into question by the lawsuit plaintiffs, and a judge questioned whether the process of selecting that map violated election code 10010, according to a 2016 city of Fullerton agenda report. This code states that, when moving from an at-large-election process to district elections, a political body must hold at least two public hearings on the matter.
“Map 8” had only been reviewed at one public meeting before the council selected it. However, after the court ruling, the city council held an additional meeting, re-selecting “map 8” for the district voting ballot measure, according to the report.
“The city was required to follow a specific legal process for selecting a district map and did so accordingly,” Stephen Hale, the spokesperson for the city, wrote in an email response.Fullerton’s five city council districts.
Cantor believes the map — which divides the downtown area into five parts, one for each district — splits the neighborhood up and dilutes the voices of each community.
“I think that taking a historic community like downtown in all of its vibrance and its very serious and unique set of issues [and] cracking [it] out to five parts is going to make the problem worse over ten years than it should be,” said Cantor.
Jaramillo agreed that the map that was chosen for the ballot, and ultimately passed, is not perfect. She remembers discussing her options with her lawyer.
“He said, ‘What are we going to do, Kitty? Are we going to get in a fight over this map?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know Kevin. Even though it’s not a total victory, we still have a little bit of a victory here.’ And he goes, ‘That’s exactly how I feel,’” said Jaramillo.
Jaramillo said that there was also a time concern. They wanted the first district elections to happen in 2018. If the debate lingered on, they might have had to wait until 2020.
The census in 2020 may also require a new map and a need to redistrict. However, Cantor warns that redistricting typically creates minor changes.
“People view change in smaller increments not larger ones, and allowing a map to land that has significant flaws for the sake of willing to change it in the future, I think, was a mistake,” said Cantor.
The district lines may be in question, but at least one candidate has stepped forward in the next election who is new to the political scene. Ahmad Zahra, an immigrant who spent his early life in England and Syria and has lived in southeast Fullerton for 17 years, is running in District 5.
Zahra first began to notice city politics and policies when he and his partner applied to be foster parents. They were denied because the only condo they could afford in Fullerton at the time was a one bedroom.
“That’s really the first time you realize that city policies affect your life personally: the choice of housing [and] the decisions they make on new developments. You realize city councils have such an impact on people’s lives,” said Zahra.
Zahra said he believes district elections go beyond minority representation; it’s more about “neighborhood representation.”
Once elected to represent a specific area, Zahra said, “That neighborhood becomes your life.”