Argument in Favor of District Elections

Matthew Leslie

The official argument in favor of the District Elections measure scheduled for local ballots in November has appeared on the City of Fullerton’s website, as has the argument against it. The argument in favor of the measure to adopt district-based elections is weak, misleading, and patronizing. In fact, there is really no argument at all in the text to indicate how a district-based elections system itself would benefit the residents of the city, only a wrongheaded and fallacious defense of the dreadful district map the council chose as the mechanism for this change.

Tellingly, the argument is signed not by Vivian “Kitty” Jaramillo or Jonathan Paik, the plaintiffs whose respective lawsuits claiming underrepresentation of Latino and Asian voters resulted in  the city placing district-based elections on the ballot in the first place. One might expect Mr. Paik and Ms. Jaramillo to be out in front trying to get the measure passed, but the Fullerton City Council chose a map so objectionable to the plaintiffs that they have not signed the argument in favor of its passage. And they’ve initiated a court action to stop the adopted Map 8A, drawn up by a local bar owner, and staunchly opposed by the plaintiffs, from appearing with the ballot measure they sued to bring about.

Instead, Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald signed the argument in favor of District Elections. It is signed by four others, including bar owner Jeremy Popoff, but the text is both disingenuous and sophomoric enough to have actually been penned by Jennifer Fitzgerald personally. Let’s take a look at it line by line, with Jennifer Fitzgerald’s arguments in bold italics, followed by my comments:

Argument in Favor of Measure___*

Fullerton is a great city with a small town feel and no matter what laws change in our community, we must work together to ensure that Fullerton always remains a special place.

It begins with standard patronizing puffery, unnecessary in a ballot argument. Sounds more like a re-election campaign mailer…

Recent changes in California state law dictate that the city of Fullerton will no longer be able to elect its city council members by a city-wide vote.

What recent changes? If state law required Fullerton to adopt district-based voting now, would there exist the need to put this very measure before the voters? The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), enacted in 2002, made it easier for minority groups to sue cities if they claim that their collective vote is diluted by a majority population in an existing at-large voting system. Cities have been successfully sued all over California to adopt at-large voting systems to remedy complaints. More than 160 cities, in all, have adopted such systems for elections. Fullerton is just the latest to settle a suit by placing a ballot measure to adopt the district system before the voters. (Cities with populations of less than 100,000 may summarily switch to district elections by a vote of their City Council, as Buena Park did, but Fullerton has about 135,000 residents, and so the proposed changed must go before the voters).

Instead, starting in 2018, voters will only be able to vote for one council member who lives in their respective voting district. Fullerton will be divided into five voting districts and the map of those recommended districts is attached.

These statements will be true if this very ballot measure is passed by the voters, but they aren’t true now. It is true that if this ballot measure doesn’t pass it is likely to end up in court, where a judge might ultimately approve a different map, but the new map could have more than five districts in it.

The City Council felt that changing our election system required a strong community process. The recommended map contained in this measure came about after extensive public education and involvement of community members across the spectrum of our city at community meetings, through on-line engagement and at public hearings.

The key word in the above sentence is “after.” Slidebar owner Jeremy Popoff attended exactly none of the community meetings before submitting his map, 8A, “after” the meetings had already occurred. Whatever was gained by the numerous meetings is not reflected in Map 8A, which was not the product of any significant “community engagement,” unless one counts Mr. Popoff’s fellow bar owners as a community.

In June of this year, the recommended map was unanimously approved by the Fullerton City Council.

True, and it was, I think, the worst unanimous vote of the Fullerton City Council in recent memory. There was absolutely no valid argument made for adopting Map 8A over the other much better maps before the council. Ironically, the unanimous vote itself may be the best single argument for adopting district-based elections in general because it might hasten the exit of the current council members, but this map is not the one to accomplish that goal.

Fullerton is a City with amazing history and a big heart.

It turns out that we’re big-hearted and amazing (!). Is that an argument for something?

The proposed map respects our communities of interest and gives all Fullerton citizens a common voice in representation of our unique historic downtown, the heart of our community.

No, the proposed map does NOT respect Fullerton’s communities of interest. Artificially stretching five district boundaries so that they all meet downtown not only fragments the downtown residential community of interest into non-existence, but also distorts other communities of interest to do so. Grafting pieces of the downtown residential neighborhoods onto the five other districts distorts each of them into a gerrymandered mess, with boundaries cutting right through neighborhoods in other areas of the city, destroying their integrity as communities.

Our downtown is our natural meeting place. Whether it is First Night, the Thursday Night Market or the Veterans Day Parade, downtown is at the center of it all.

Downtown is also a place surrounded by residential houses and apartments with inhabitants who should have just as much right to representation as any other area of the city. The people living in those residences will be split up five different ways as appendages to other districts, obliterating their voting community if this measure passes, but Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald and her cohorts are not concerned about these people. Indeed, this map is a deliberate attempt to keep them, or anyone else, from having a unified voice in the downtown area, where most of the  large scale high density development is planned in coming years.

We recognize not everyone is happy with having council districts or with this specific map. But after much community engagement, a unified city council joined together in support of this plan.

As if a bad decision is somehow better because five people made it together… The “argument’s” conciliatory tone wouldn’t be necessary if people other than bar owners had supported this map. Telling voters to just suck up their objections and be happy that something got done, even if it’s a bad thing, is dismissive of the real concerns many of Fullerton’s residents expressed about this map.

Please join us in moving forward with community pride for an even better Fullerton.

Again, a fallback appeal to Fullerton’s “community pride” instead of a cogent argument demonstrating how this awful map would make Fullerton “even better”.

We urge you to vote “Yes”on Measure___*

No, don’t. Jennifer Fitzgerald and her bar owner friends took what could have been a good idea for better democracy in Fullerton and turned it into a disaster that doesn’t deserve your vote.


*The measure doesn’t yet have a letter designation