By Jim Tortolano
The clock is running as the City of Westminster scrambles to ditch its historic at-large election process and go instead with a by-district alternative for choosing members of its city council.
“This is literally a big deal,” said Councilman Sergio Contreras. It could even mean a bigger city council.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the council, the panel voted 5-0 to begin the transition. The process must be completed by Dec. 18.
The council made the move – which would change an election process that’s been in place since the city was incorporated in 1957 – after hearing a dire report about the prospects of winning a legal battle over the issue.
Kimberly Hall Barlow, deputy city attorney, told the council that a demand has been made to make the switch, under the California Voting Rights Act, which aims to discourage “racially polarized voting,” in which ethnic groups favored candidates of their own ethnicity.
The letter was from attorney Kevin Shenkman, who has influenced other cities to make the change.
“There’s a very low burden of proof,” she told the council, and “it’s very difficult to refute.” She added that every city that has fought the move from at-large to by-district has lost. “It could cost the city $1 million to $6 million if we lost.”
The city is immediately beginning the process with community workshops and public hearings to gain input from residents. The first public hearing will be at the council’s Oct. 23 meeting; the first workshop is set for Wednesday, Oct. 16 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Miriam Warne Community Building, 14491 Beach Blvd.
Others will follow.
It’s unlikely that the current election of the mayor directly – as opposed to on a rotational basis, which is the practice in some cities – would change, since the voters approved direct selection of that post. “The voters approved it,” said City Attorney Christine Cordon, “and it couldn’t be changed without a vote of the public.”
But what might change is the size of the council. If it was found that, for example, adding more seats to the council might reduce that “racially polarized voting,” the existing council might do that for the 2020 election. When Garden Grove made its switch, it expanded the size of its council from five to seven.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” said Cordon.
All this is going on against a backdrop of dueling recall efforts in which groups are seeking to remove from office all five members of the council as part of a contentious struggle between supporters of the council majority (Mayor Tri Ta and council members Kimberly Ho and Chi Charlie Nguyen) and the council minority (council members Tai Do and Contreras).