Santa Paula Times

City Council members get varied reactions to DOJ lawsuit from residents

April 12, 2000
Santa Paula City Council
Varied is the only way to describe the reactions members of the Santa Paula City Council are getting to the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit filed last week that alleges the city’s at-large elections favor whites and violate the voting rights of Latinos. The lawsuit was filed in a Los Angeles court; a letter was sent to the city in July by a DOJ official who noted such potential legal action due to Santa Paula being in violation of the Voting Rights Act that guarantees minority citizens the opportunity for meaningful participation in elections.To avoid a lawsuit, the City Council would have to agree to carve the city into five single-member districts to give Latinos the opportunity to elect candidates in at least two districts.Santa Paula’s approximately 27,100 residents are about 60 percent LatinoThe DOJ lawsuit was filed April 6th against all five members of the City Council - Rick Cook, Laura Flores Espinosa, Jim Garfield, Don Johnson and Robin Sullivan - and Ventura County Clerk Richard Dean, charged by law with conducting elections and who would oversee any changes in Santa Paula’s election methods.The lawsuit alleges that “racially polarized voting patterns” prevail in city elections with white bloc voting usually defeating Latino candidates; staggering of terms of city council elections “reduces the opportunities for Hispanic voters to overcome the effect of bloc voting”; and that Hispanic persons have suffered from a history of “official discrimination that has affected the ability” of Latinos to participate effectively in the political process. The lawsuit also notes that Latinos bear the “effects of past discrimination in areas such as education, employment and housing” and past political campaigns have demonstrated “instances of racial appeals.”Even the city’s controversial annexation plan came under DOJ fire as “likely to result in the reduction of the percentage of Hispanic voting-age citizens in the city” the lawsuit noted.And what do Santa Paulans think?“Naturally, the people I’ve been getting a reaction from are saying the lawsuit is wrong,” said Mayor Rick Cook. “I have had some people ask what would happen if we just give in,” to the DOJ, although “I’ve heard more people opposing it then those that want to give in.”
Cook added that talks with the voting rights attorney retained by the city, John McDermott, “we’ll know more, but right now I’m in favor of challenging the lawsuit, it just doesn’t make sense.”Cook said he got plenty of comment and opinion during Friday’s Cruise Night event held on Main Street. “Everybody there was backing the majority of the council and saying not to give in, Latinos and Anglos both. But I’ve heard both say to just give in,” to DOJ demands.Positive reaction has “definitely” been heard from many Latinos, said Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinosa, who has long advocated that the city settle with the DOJ. “The are very pleased that the DOJ came into Santa Paula” although she has heard “mixed feelings” from the Anglo community, although one person was apologetic, “sorry it’s gotten to this point.”Overall, she added, “People recognize that this is not a matter of blaming anyone, it’s 100 years of history and can’t be pointed at one specific person or issue. An overwhelming number of people I’ve spoken to want this negotiated and do not want taxpayer money spent on fighting the Department of Justice.”The City Council was scheduled to meet in a special session Monday to consider the lawsuit and whether or not they will oppose it.