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Council Compromises on By-District Voting in Alhambra; OKs First Reading of Ballot

Photo by Alhambra Source.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The special meeting of the Alhambra City Council early Tuesday morning had just one item on the agenda but its context signaled a possible change in how the city conducts its elective business.

The item was the first read of an ordinance calling the November 3, 2020 municipal election for city council districts 3 and 4, Alhambra Unified School Districts 1, 2 and 3 and a charter amendment removing references to the AUSD from Alhambra City Charter so that school district elections may be conducted pursuant to state law. And the final point on the ordinance was a charter amendment to establish campaign finance reform and also to establish by district voting for city council elections.

The final point on that  list is the headline in Alhambra politics and has had a long and contentious history. The wording in this part of the ordinance, supersedes the previous ballot initiative put forth by Grassroots Alhambra that has qualified for the November ballot. The change reflects recently renewed talks between Grassroots leaders and city officials.

Sources told Alhambra Source that those talks began again after the city received a letter, dated April 30, urging it to reform its voting system from the current at-large system to a district-by-district approach or face a legal challenge under the California Voting Rights Act. The letter came from attorney Kevin Shenkman who has a history of fighting and winning these challenges, and one of his clients was listed as Grassroots Alhambra. A  second letter from a different attorney, Scott J. Rafferty, and apparently without connection to any entity in Alhambra, requested similar steps and pledged legal recourse if they were not taken.

These letters came shortly after three city council members – Council Member Jeff Maloney, Vice Mayor David Mejia and Mayor Ross Maza – voted to ask city staff to draft an alternate measure for the November election that would support campaign finance reform while keeping the at-large voting system. 

The city was represented in the resumed talks by Mejia and Maloney. Grassroots Alhambra was represented by Ron Sahu, a planning commission member, and Eric Sunada, one of the founders of Grassroots.

According to comments at Tuesday’s council meeting, there was give and take on both sides and a compromise was reached to allow the revised measure to move forward without city hall opposition.

Grassroots Details Changes

In an email blast on Sunday night that was also posted on its Facebook page, Grassroots Alhambra said: “We want to assure you that the substance of our Grassroots measure has not changed. First and foremost, the two core elements — a $250 campaign donor limit and by-district elections — remain without any changes.”

And the message listed a number of changes “which we believe, on balance, enhances the measure without compromising its goals.”  You can read those changes in the text of the email from Grassroots.

An addendum to the city council agenda for Tuesday contained the language to the city charter amendment on voting and campaign finance as well as other items in the ordinance.

Before the four council members present by teleconference at Tuesday’s meeting — Mejia, an LAPD officer, was unable to participate due to his deployment in the current public emergency — voted unanimously to approve all parts of the ordinance, they heard from a large number of residents either by phone or email with much of the comment focused on campaign finance reform and by-district voting.

The Grassroots communication Sunday had urged interested parties to attend the teleconference session and comment. Of the 26 phone and emailed comments, 22 voiced support for the revised initiative and urged the council to adopt it. Some called it a “unity measure” with the city but the official wording does not contain that characterization.

Many applauded the city and the council for working proactively to find accord with Grassroots.

In one emailed comment, Cliff Bender, a Grassroots board member who is also an officer in the Alhambra Educational Foundation, said:

“By working together, the Grassroots sponsors and the city were able to reach consensus on a measure that will  satisfy the requirements of the California Voting Rights Act by retaining major components of the original initiative.”

Bender also commended city staff for “aiding in the preparation and drafting” of what he termed this “consensus  measure.”

Those in opposition repeated their beliefs that the present form of at-large representation has worked well for Alhambra and is preferable to the alternative. It seemed clear from the tone of their remarks that this fight is not over.

Was Council Forced to Comply?

An email from Jeffrey Chan, wondered if “the council was being forced to comply” and cited the legal challenge put forth by Grassroots. There was no mention of the second letter seeking legal remedy.

Another comment, from Antonio P. Chivera Jr., said “the current government structure works well and gives all a chance for input.”

If the council puts this on the ballot, Chivera wrote, “a sleeping giant will be awakened and will defeat this measure.”

A resident named Pat Castro said that he was “not happy that Grassroots hired an attorney, noting the city council is diverse enough” an apparent reference to parts of the California Voting Rights Act on diversity and inclusion.

The four council members present commented before they voted.

“This was going to happen with the situation we are in,” Maloney said in apparent reference to the two legal challenges the city faces. 

“We can be proud of what we put before the council today,” he said calling it “the best way forward for our to city to make sure we are putting this divisive political debate behind us.”

Council member Katherine Lee said she was happy with the outcome noting that “Grassroots members were open to listen to my concerns and make some of the changes that we brought back.”

“I’ve said it a few times that there are pros and cons to both election systems and by-district, I believe, is better for Alhambra. This language is something we can both live with,” Lee said.

Council member Adele Andrade-Stadler thanked fellow council members Mejia, Maloney and Maza for withdrawing their effort for an alternate ballot measure and, using a phrase voiced by Ron Sahu in public comment, engaging in “good faith negotiations,” with Grassroots. 

Maza, too, was grateful for the public comment adding that “one of the things I’ve pushed for is unity and my hope is that after we put this topic behind us we can concentrate on moving Alhambra forward.”

With that, Andrade-Stadler put forth a motion to approve and it was seconded by Maloney. The roll call recorded four ayes. The measure is due to come back to the council for as second reading and comment at the next regular council meeting, which on the city calendar is  listed for June 8.

Public comment off this topic encouraged city staff to detail the public safety situation in light of the current unrest and, also, to detail Alhambra Police Department policy on the use of the kind of knee restraint that was used in Minnesota during the arrest and subsequent death of George Floyd.

The council then moved into closed session to again consider the two letters demanding changes in voting procedures. 

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