Anaheim, Calif. – The Anaheim City Council heard public comments for over three hours Wednesday from residents who want voting districts they say will increase Latino representation.
But the council rejected the proposal on a 3-2 vote.
"I hope we take the time and the due diligence to address the issue," said council member Kris Murray, who voted against the proposal.
Community members said they feel the city cares more about the tourism industry rather than what they called disenfranchised neighborhoods. The ACLU and other community groups have filed a lawsuit against Anaheim, alleging the current at-large district system violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting Latino influence.
“Now is the time for my city to be the primary resource for my success and for others like me," said Adriana Gonzales. "You don’t understand what it means because you don’t live where I do.”
Four out of the five city council members live in the Anaheim Hills, a markedly more affluent area of the city.
You don’t understand what it means because you don’t live where I do.
- Adriana Gonzalez
“It’s unsafe, there’s nothing beautiful about it, and it smells horrible,” Gonzales continued. “There’s kids everywhere, and they play in the streets between cars because there is no open space for them. To me that was normal, but now I know there’s a difference.”
The wounds of the community are still fresh from police shootings of two Hispanic men last month. Residents said they feel underrepresented and that the city council system in place marginalizes Latinos in a city that is about 53 percent Hispanic.
Not one of the five city council members is Hispanic, and with an at-large district system, council members are not required to live in specific neighborhoods. In the past, there have been only three Hispanic members on the council, according to the ACLU.
Richard Chavez is one of them, and he said he supports creating districts in Anaheim for better Latino representation.
He told the council a story of when he was a firefighter responding to a call. There he spoke to a young boy in Spanish. He said the boy did not know firefighters were allowed to speak Spanish.
“I was crushed," said Chavez, a former councilman. "This boy at age 8 is already marginalized.”
The city council held its meeting at Anaheim High School’s Cook Auditorium, which seats almost 1,300, to accommodate more people. Two weeks ago, many community members were shut out of the packed meeting, which led to protests outside.
“It’s great to see so many people here today. This is what democracy looks like,” Vern Nelson of the Orange Juice Blog said. “The people here are what’s called a sleeping giant. Now they’re awake, and I hope Anaheim’s people will never go back to sleep.”
Anaheim is the only California city of its size that does not have elections by district.
Some residents opposed changing the system for electing council members. Cynthia Ward, a blogger and an Anaheim resident, says districts would cause problems because council offices would have to be staffed and she believes divisions within a council could lead to corruption and cronyism.
Amidst the community’s distrust of the Anaheim police force and frustration at the city council, residents offered solutions. One resident suggested police should use pistol-mounted cameras to capture police shootings. Many demanded a citizens’ commission to review police activity.
The mother of 25-year-old Manuel Diaz, who police shot and killed July 21, addressed the council and audience with tears streaming down her face, saying she wanted marches and peaceful protests to continue.
“It’s time to make a change in Anaheim,” Genevieve Huizar said. “Give the children a chance to grow in a healthy environment. I want the young children to have hope, I want them to have peace. I want us all to have justice.”
Several family members were present of those who died in police shootings. Perla Castillo, a friend of Diaz, tearfully told the council that the community is afraid of the police.
“Like you guys want respect from us, we want respect from you guys too,” Castillo said with a shaken voice.
Donna Acevedo, the mother of Joel Acevedo, who police shot and killed a day after Diaz died, had just come from the cemetery to join Anaheim residents. Donna Acevedo, whose son police say was a documented gang member, said at the cemetery kids came to her to say they were not afraid of gangs but of the police.
“I don’t want to come across as just some angry mother, and I’m mad because they killed my son. There’s a lot more to it, and there needs to be justice and accountability on their part,” Acevedo said.
Mayor Tom Tait, who voted in favor of adopting the district voting measure, promised to find answers through investigations and more time to hear the community’s voices.
“Our job is to seek the truth," Tait said. "And whatever that truth is we should seek and confront it.”
Raquel Estupinan is a freelance journalist who recently received her master's degree from the University of Southern California. She is formerly a fellow for News 21, a national reporting initiative.