The Single-Member Council District Mentality in Action…Against Anaheim

cathy greenOne of the arguments against dividing Anaheim into single-member council districts is that it makes the council dynamic more parochial and fractious because councilmembers will tend to place the interests of their section of the city above the interests of the city as a whole.

We saw that in action on December 9 when members of the OC Water District Board of Directors were explaining why they were voting for or against leasing the Ball Road Basin for the construction of a power plant. Seven of the 10 members of the OCWD Board are elected from single-member districts (they call them “divisions”). Director Cathy Green represents Division 6, which is composed of parts of Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach.

Green told the crowd of Anaheim residents and business employees she had prepared explanations for casting a vote in favor and against the power plant least, and announced she would support leasing Ball Road Basin to Competitive Power Ventures. Green said the lease would generate revenue for the OCWD, which would benefit her constituents in Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach — and she reminded us that it was their interests she had been elected to represent. Not the interests of the OCWD as a whole (which includes how the district interacts with and impacts neighboring communities), but the interests of her Division 6 residents.

It’s useful to note here that this vote went against Anaheim by the barest of margins: 6-4. If one more director had voted “no” instead of “yes,” the lease proposal would have been defeated and Anaheim would have to spend the next 18 months fighting the siting of a power plant on the Ball Road Basin.

In October, the contentious issue of the homeless encampment in La Palma Park came to a head as the City Council, responding to the pleas and protests from residents who lived near the park or tried to use it, enacted an anti-camping ordinance.

What if the council had been elected from single-member districts, instead of at-large by all Anaheim voters? Would the councilmembers the districts that didn’t include La Palma Park have been as responsive to the concerns of those neighborhoods’ residents, who would never be able to cast a vote for or against them?

These issues also illustrate that councilmembers who are elected at-large will be concerned about issues in every part of the city. Anaheim community activist Keith Olesen put it succinctly in this Facebook post earlier this month:

keith olesen zip codes

As we enter 2014 and the council and mayoral campaigns ramp up, single-member council districts will be one of the issues the candidates debate. It’s useful for that debate to be informed by what happens in the real world, rather than in theories wrapped in good intentions.


  1. Anaheim’s population has grown tremendously from the days when the charter was first adopted. Anaheim has 343,000 residents and 121,000 registered voters. Campaigns for council are too expensive, forcing candidates to rely on special interest PAC money much more than they would in district elections. Are you a member of a PAC? I’m not. I think most people are disturbed by these financial and power aggregators attempting to control elections. You may not be able to avoid corrupt influence entirely. but at least local district elections are more likely to be based on citizen input and not power brokers control.

    • Matthew Cunningham

      I can assure you, a PAC or independent expenditure committee can spend much less to influence the outcome in a single-member council district election than in an at-large election.

      In 2012, $1 million was spent in a single council district election in the City of San Jose – which has single-member district elections.

  2. District elections = local control.

    • Matthew Cunningham

      Allen, If that is the case (and I don’t think it is), then more districts equals more local control – therefore the more districts, the better. So how many council districts do you think Anaheim should have? Six? Eight? 10? 12? The logic of your position argues for as many as possible, so at what point do you say there are “enough” council districts?

    • Allen, could your analysis be any more simple-minded?

  3. A city council elected at-large as Anaheim has is what equals local control. If you live in Anaheim you are local. Right now if you don’t like the way any council member votes doesn’t matter where that council member lives, if you don’t like their voting record you have the ability to vote that council member out of office. Now if you have these Districts that Mayor Tait supports and the council votes for something that you don’t like, you are screwed. Currently it takes three votes to get anything done in Anaheim. That leverage is lost under a District form of city council.

  4. The other factor is that of minority representation. Anaheim may end up being forced by the courts to adopt a fairer system of representation. This study published by researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard University provides useful background information on the negative effects of at-large districts on minority representation.

    • Why don’t you look at the last 10 years of elections in Anaheim. We have a solid history electing Latinos and other minority representatives. This is a concerted effort to elect pro labor democrats or the Democratic Party of OC wouldn’t make it their top priority to force districts on Anaheim. Also, Santa Ana also overwhelming elects Latino candidates with the district system approved by the council and going to voters so your arguments don’t hold water.

      • The reason research studies like the one cited look at a larger population of data than just one or two example cities is that scientifically speaking, it will support a more sound conclusion. Also, Santa Ana is a 78% Hispanic population city. So it actually agrees with the data cited by the study. And for that matter, so does the current council ethnic makeup in Anaheim. The question shouldn’t be will this result in election of democrats or republicans. These are non-partisan offices. Our founding fathers warned against the tyrrany of the majority and fair elections help to avoid that.

        • Matthew Cunningham

          Glenn: your arguments rest on the premise that representation in democratic government is a function of race. That is a profoundly opposed to the founding principles of this nation. Our natural rights are endowed by our Creator, per the Declaration. Those rights are transcendent and inalienable. Neither you nor I nor anyone else is entitled to more or less representation in elected bodies because of our pigmentation or the language we speak or how long we have been Americans.

          Lincoln didn’t appeal for the preservation of “government of the people, by the people and for the people…depending on their race or ethnicity and dominant language.” He fought for the fulfillment of the Declaration’s principles; causes like the ACLU lawsuit are antithetical to those principles and take us backward as a society.

  5. You have failed to refute what the study says which is at-large districts tend to increase majority representation and decrease minority representation below proportional representation. Are you saying that that is OK, you want a system proven to under-represent minorities? Is that your true intended desire?

    It seems like you are still fighting the Civil War and you’ve forgotten what side Abraham Lincoln was on. I quote an article by historian Eugene Berwanger in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association: “Lincoln’s endeavors in behalf of black suffrage were even more startling. Although he openly declared his opposition to equal suffrage in 1858, he became more receptive to the idea during the war. On the eve of his assassination he publicly advocated voting rights for some blacks. The road he took toward equal suffrage was similar to that which led him to emancipation. When first convinced of the reform’s necessity, he tried to achieve action at the state level. Failing that he alluded to the topic in private conservation and in one public address. Finally, he indicated his willingness to secure the reform by federal legislation.” See–lincoln-s-constitutional-dilemma-emancipation-and-black?rgn=main;view=fulltext

    In my view, your efforts to oppose local districts are not at all in keeping with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs. Nor do they concur with Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration you cite. It was Jefferson, of course, who saw the necessity for the Bill of Rights to protect the minority from the tyrrany of the majority.

  6. Matthew Cunningham


    Such “refutation” is unnecessary because I reject your apparent belief that representation is a function of race and ethnicity. The California Voting Rights Act is focused on race and ethnicity as the measures of representation, but the underlying principles of the law could be extended to gender-based representation, or whether a particular system over- or under-represents citizens of a certain philosophical or political orientation.

    Los Angeles has 15 councilmembers, elected from single-member districts. Democrats make up 56% of registered voters in the city, but have 100% of the council seats. Republican and NPP voters are totally unrepresented. More than have of Angelenos are women, and yet there is only one woman on the LA City Council. Does the single-member council district system disenfranchise Republicans, independents and women? Do a voter’s political beliefs (which they choose to have) matter less than his or her’s skin color (which is an accident of birth) when it comes representation on elective bodies?

    Your argument; the underlying assumptions of the ACLU lawsuit and the leading proponents of single-member districts in Anaheim is that voters’ political beliefs — their view of what the relationship between citizens and government should be, their beliefs about the role of government in our lives — is, at best, of secondary importance to our race and ethnicity. At its essence, the CVRA view is that representative government boils down to ensuring our elected bodies mere statistical reflection of the ethnic and racial make-up of the population.

    If you think Abraham Lincoln would have supported that view, then you completely misunderstand his political philosophy.

  7. Of course I’ve said none of the things that you claim. You are using a “straw man” argument. And by bringing up Los Angeles (which Anahem most certainly is not!) you try to universalize from one example rather than acknowledging academically sound research.

    Why not adhere to the republican principle that the best government is local? What is your motivation other than trying to prevent even a single person of a minority viewpoint from being elected? What’s wrong with having a more balanced council? In a balanced council, minority viewpoints and needs are more likely to be given voice and consideration in decision making. Are you opposed to that? Why? I’m not asking you to abandon being a Republican Matt, I’m asking you to be a more responsible Republican who makes decisions based on more than just partisan concerns. There is a moral and legal principle of fairness involved here which should not be ignored.

  8. Sick of politics

    I think Matt should be arguing the case in court. The CVRA essentially states that representation is a matter of race and nothing else. How can the constitution support this ideology?

  9. There is no such ideology as you have described it and the CVRA doesn’t attempt to define “representation.” Matt’s profoundly flawed logic is akin to criticizing a statute on murder because it doesn’t criminalize other behaviors. CVRA addresses the very specific problem we are debating here. Not all problems with fair elections. Other laws address other issues. Using at-large elections to prevent minority viewpoints from being heard is immoral, unconstitutional and goes against basic principles of fair and open elections. All persons are of worth. Why do you hide behind the word representation to justify the majority voting in racial blocs to prevent _any_ minorities from being elected?

    All California counties now have local district elections for Supervisor specifically to avoid the wrong of intentionally under-representing minorities. There are 21 California counties with populations smaller than the City of Anaheim and all of them have local district elections for Supervisor.

    • One of the primary architects of the CVRA and counsel in the case against the city Robert Rubin has gone so far as to state publicly that defining Latinos per CVRA means that Lorri Galloway who served two terms and declares herself to be Latina doesn’t count because he heard her father was from Spain and not from Latin America. Galloway who is by far the preferred candidate among Latinos and Hispanic community in Anaheim. We have the federally protected right to self declare our ethnicity but CVRA author Rubin says that this state law overrides it. Worse CVRA does not allow for people of different races to choose a preferred candidate of a different race – or Jordan Brandman who was the preferred candidate among Latinos in the last election would count per the law. This law is solely about race and the color of our skin and seeks to define districts and segregate voters based on those factors. You are wholly mistaken if you think this is about ensuring minority representation. Rubin and others have made a fortune suing cities off of a law that claims to be about representation and claims that districts will provide improved services but I’ve worked for districted cities and that claim is not backed up anywhere – check out Long Beach and LA as two examples where impoverished neighborhoods are no better off with districts. Better yet, name one city that switched to districts where services improved for low income neighborhoods. Enough already with rhetoric – show us some proof not academic studies that don’t relate to the California law.

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