LocationAlhambra , CA
Alhambra voters may have noticed two local measures on their Nov. 3 ballots— Measure V, which concerns City Council elections, and Measure G, which concerns the Alhambra Unified School District. The two measures both aim to replace Alhambra’s traditional at-large voting system with by-district elections, part of a larger trend that places cities more in line with state laws.
In other words, if the measures pass, voters would only be allowed to elect a candidate running in the district they live in, much like the way they choose members of the State Assembly, Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Tuesday’s election, as in all previous ones, voters have the option of choosing candidates in all five districts of the city and Alhambra Unified School District whether or not they live in the district.
Proponents of both measures say a by-district voting system benefits both voters and candidates by improving representation for each district and reducing the financial burden on candidates who will no longer have to run citywide. In citywide elections, it is possible voters from outside your district to elect a candidate to represent you, resulting in what is called vote dilution.
However, opponents of the proposed election system argue that there is nothing wrong with the current one and that changing it would diminish voters’ choice .
The need for Alhambrans to vote on these measures stems from its status as a charter city, one of 108 California cities governed by a city charter, which can be thought of as the city’s constitution. Other cities such as neighboring Monterey Park are bound by the state’s general law rather than a separate city charter.
So, Measures V and G would amend the Alhambra city charter and must be approved by voters and not simply passed by a decision of the City Council.
Measure V, formally known as the Alhambra Election and Campaign Finance Reform Act, encompasses several major provisions beyond establishing by-district voting. These include strict limits on campaign contributions and prohibitions on any contributions from property developers, contractors and political action committees.
Eric Sunada, executive director of the San Gabriel Oversight Group, said the current electoral system “makes it very difficult for people’s voices to be heard and makes it a lot easier for special interest groups to co-op city government.”
Sunada, a founder of Grassroots Alhambra, the group that brought a draft measure to the City Council in fall 2018. He said talks about the initiative began in 2016 and that the four-year path to the ballot was an “onerous” one. For the initiative to qualify for the ballot, Grassroots Alhambra collected more than 7,000 signatures from Alhambra residents in support after which negotiations began with the City Council.
Councilman Jeff Maloney said some members, including himself, had reservations about combining the by-district provision with the provision on campaign contribution limits. “There are two big questions to decide in one ballot measure and often people like to decide on these big issues separately,” he said.
Before an alternative could be found, Sunada said attorneys caught wind of the issue and filed letters to the city indicating potential voting rights violations. All five City Council members eventually came to support the measure as a whole and added the provision banning campaign contributions from developers, contractors and PACs.
Maloney acknowledged there are benefits to both at-large and by-district voting, which is why some felt the issue should have been separated. But in lawsuits over the past two decades cities have found it was better to convert to by-district voting rather than wait for potential litigation alleging violation of the California Civil Rights Voting Act.
Passed in 2002, the act “promotes the use of by-district elections to encourage the election of candidates preferred by previously ‘underrepresented’ voters such as Latinos and Asian-Americans,” according to a Claremont McKenna College report.
Prior to the law, only 29 of California’s nearly 500 cities had a by-district electoral system. By the 2016 general election, that number jumped to 59. The shift is, in part, driven by a number of cities that lost their fights against district elections and had to pay millions in settlement fees. Anaheim, for example, paid a $1.1 million settlement in a lawsuit in 2014.
“It wasn’t worth spending millions of dollars of the city money just to preserve the current system,” Maloney said.
Though Measure V has full support from the City Council, and there are no official arguments against it, a group of challengers in Alhambra are still making their voices heard.
Known as Friends of Alhambra, the group argues by-district voting is akin to disenfranchisement. It has sprinkled “No On Measure V” lawn signs across the city as well as sent out election mailers.
The Friends of Alhambra website mentions a “special interest group,” which most likely refers to Grassroots Alhambra. Some Grassroots Alhambra members have taken to ColoradoBoulevard.net to counter the opposition and address “alternative facts” waged against the measure.
Barbara Messina, who served on the City Council for 24 years and is now on the Planning Commission, is a member of Friends of Alhambra. “[Grassroots Alhambra] has really basically held our city hostage with all of their negative campaigning against—as they put it—the old guard,” she said.
Messina, a lifelong resident of Alhambra, said Measure V will be a detriment to voters. “You have more power when you have clout over all five of [the city council candidates],” she said, “How do you subdivide a city that operates as a whole into five different units?”
Messina said she doesn’t have a problem with campaign finance reform and rejects the notion that there was any past corruption within the council. “It’s a shame that people are so willing to believe the negative stuff about things,” she said.
By limiting campaign contributions to $250 per donor per candidate and prohibiting contributions from special interest groups, the measure aims to take “big money” out of elections and possibly attract more minority candidates and increase competition. The measure will also increase transparency by making campaign finance reports available on the city website, which was previously available upon request from the Alhambra City Clerk’s office.
“It levels the playing field so they’re not competing against huge campaign war chests and things like that” said Martha Zavala, president of the League of Women Voters of the Pasadena area. The organization, a voting rights advocacy group, is one of the official supporters of Measure V.
Measure G, which has the potential of creating by-district voting for the Alhambra Unified School District’s Board of Education, is actually, first and foremost, a request by the district to completely exit the Alhambra City Charter which has governed it.
If Measure G passes, all mention of the district will be erased from the city’s charter. Future changes to school board elections would no longer need to go through a charter amendment process. Instead, the district would be governed by the State Education Code and California Elections Code.
The decision sounds like a big one, but AUSD would be joining the majority of other school districts that are not governed by a city charter. The district consists not only of Alhambra, but portions of three other cities as well: San Gabriel, Monterey Park and Rosemead.
Those living within the school district bounds will be voting on Measure G.
Although the district has not received complaints about their at-large elections, it needs to leave the charter framework in order to assess its election system, including compliance with the state’s Civil Rights Voting Act. Converting to a by-district system will ensure that.
“When you exit a city charter that you’ve been a part of for a century, it gives you opportunities to now make changes that are best for constituents in 2020,” said district spokesperson Toby Gilbert.
Marcia Wilson, a candidate for the School Board, said she welcomed the new measure. “The concept of by-district voting is a very democratic process. I mean, we’re supposed to be representing a certain group of people,” she said.
If Measure G passes, a potentially new body of school board members will decide next steps for the district January of next year.