By Jim Tortolano/Garden Grove Journal
When Garden Grove was born as a city in 1956, it had about 44,000 residents (nearly all Anglo) and a city council with five members elected at large.
Over a half-century later, with a population approaching 175,000 with large Hispanic and Asian populations, is it time to make a change in how the city governs itself?
Councilman Kris Beard may be stirring up a political hornet’s nest as he prepares to propose that the council scrap its current at-large setup and establish a system that divides the voting electorate into districts.
“I’ve always thought that this way is the way to go,” he said. Such a system, he said, would not only allow for more direct representation but would also make the business of politicking less costly. “Running in just one area of the city would make it less expensive to run for city council.”
The cost of local public office has exploded. In a recent contested mayoral race, one candidate raised over $100,000; several years ago Andy Quach raised more than $140,000 in an unsuccessful effort to become Westminster’s mayor.
A move to districts has its opponents. Councilman Chris Phan is one of them. “I don’t think its necessary,” he said. “Garden Grove isn’t that big of a city. I walked the entire city when I ran for council.”
When the subject of underrepresentation comes up, West Garden Grove and the city’s growing Hispanic population are mentioned most often. “I am in touch with West Garden Grove and east Garden Grove,” he said.
Robin Marcario, who ran unsuccessfully three times for city council, is in favor of the idea, and wants another change as well. “I think it’s absolutely time for districts,” she said. “It would help get a Spanish-speaking person on the council.”
Currently, Garden Grove’s demographics are split at roughly one-third Asian, one-third Hispanic and one-third Anglo (Caucasians from an English-speaking background; Hispanics can be of any race). There have been several Vietnamese-Americans on the council and two of them – Phan and Dina Nguyen – serve currently, but no Latino has ever been elected to the city council.
The Asian population tends to be concentrated in the southern part of the city; Hispanics are most concentrated east of Harbor Boulevard. Some political observers see the idea of districts as being a zero sum contest wherein a Hispanic district would be created in the east, and the power of Vietnamese voters limited to an area in the south.
When Bruce Broadwater, now the mayor, brought the matter up in 2007, he was opposed both by then-Mayor Bill Dalton, but also Councilwoman Dina Nguyen and Garden Grove Unified School District trustees Lan Nguyen and Trung Nguyen.
His proposal, which was later dropped, echoed one advanced in 2005 to expand the council to seven seats. There would be six districts and the mayor would still be elected at large.
Marcario has a different idea. “We don’t need to expand the council. What we should do is have five districts and stop electing the mayor at large. It’s mostly a ceremonial function, anyway. They could rotate the mayor’s spot among the members, like most cities do.”
Most Orange County cities don’t have district voting, but some do. Santa Ana has wards, and Seal Beach – which is split in two by the naval weapons station in its midst – uses districts.
Districts are a hot-button issue in Anaheim, a municipality divided somewhat between the largely white Anaheim Hills area and the increasingly Latino flatlands. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the at-large system disenfranchises Hispanics and violates state voting rights laws.
Beard might come in for criticism for his proposal, since it could possibly advance his own political career. A resident of West Garden Grove, he’s twice been appointed to the council, but failed in 2012 in an effort to be elected in his own right.
That’s not his purpose, though, he says. “I always believed this was right. It’ll bring about more participatory democracy. The sheer size of the city, what it’s grown to, demands it.”