El Monte moves ahead with by-district voting process; some on Council decry timetable

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El Monte has pressed forward with its move from at-large to by-district voting for its City Council, despite a divide among its members over the timetable.

Cities and school boards around the state are going in this direction, guided by the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 — or face possible litigation if they don’t. The CVRA “prohibits the use of an at-large election in a political subdivision if it would impair the ability of a protected class, as defined, to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence the outcome of an election.”

El Monte’s City Council voted 3-2 vote on Jan. 11 to adopt a resolution to begin the process for the implementation of district-based elections that would have to be completed by April 5.

That process was to include a total of five public hearings, two of which have been completed. The next two — March 15 and March 29 — will be to develop a final map depicting the districts. An April 5 meeting will be the second and final reading of the ordinance approving the transition.

The second public hearing was held Tuesday — and from that emerged another 3-2 vote to approve going forward with a new model that would feature seven seats — six councilmembers each representing a district — and the mayor, which would remain an at-large seat.

Currently, the city operates with five seats — four councilmembers and the mayor, all of whom are elected citywide.

Both votes were the same, with councilmembers Martin Herrera, Alma Puente (mayor pro tem) and Maria Morales voting in the affirmative and Mayor Jessica Ancona and Councilmember Victoria Martinez Muela voting against.

El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona

Though she takes issue with the current process,  Ancona said she is all for by-district voting. “Moving to districts is important because it allows for representation of our diverse community in El Monte,” she said.

However, Ancona said she voted no on Jan. 11 because in her mind, the schedule does not give residents enough time to chime in with their thoughts. From Feb. 17 — the day after the first public hearing — to April 5 is 48 days.

“When we had our first hearing a couple of weeks ago, my concern was that we were going to have about a 45-day window to seek input from our community, from our voters,” she said. “We’re still in the pandemic, so folks are less likely to come out to meetings, to discuss their concerns, their preferences.

“As we consider moving into districts, once these districts are set, we can’t change them for 10 years, until the next census.”

Ancona said she preferred four districts and wanted to see maps drawn for both four and six districts. But she said her main reason for voting against the motion for six was the same — time. “We wanted to see maps for both four districts and six districts and take it to the community to decide,” Ancona said. “We wanted to provide options. We are still requesting input from our community. We don’t want the Council to be the sole driving force behind these decisions. We want community input.”

Councilmember Victoria Martinez Muela (Courtesy photo)

Councilmember Martinez Muela agreed with the mayor and urged that the timetable be extended.

“If this process is extended beyond the April deadline for submission of maps to the county registrar, I believe our city staff and consultants can put together a world class outreach and engagement program including educational interactive workshops for the community,” she said. “The feedback received will be used to make well-educated decisions on behalf of the community regarding how we will elect our representatives in the near future.”

Herrera does not share that concern.

“Yes, it is a compressed time schedule,” he said. “But for me, this is not an entirely new concept, by-district voting. We already do it. El Monte voters already do it in the state elections and the federal elections. I think voters understand this concept. It’s not entirely new.”

Herrera added: “The difference here is that we have to look at some maps and decide on how to divide the city up, what is the most appropriate map for us. I’m not so concerned that the voters are not going to be able to understand this concept, at all. I think it’s a doable thing to get done.”

Current City Council meetings are being held in person. They are also livestreamed and even though residents can’t ask questions or offer input through that, they can do so via email ahead of meetings, City Manager Alma Martinez said.

Herrera had no qualms about his vote for six districts.

El Monte City Councilmember Martin Herrera (Courtesy photo)

“I like six because it will make districts smaller,” he said. “I think it enables the representatives to be in better contact with the residents, with the businesses of their district and because I feel that our city’s going to grow; it is growing.”

As for by-district voting in general, Herrera believes it is an absolute must.

“It makes perfect sense to provide equitable representation across the city,” he said. “Equitable across cultural and ethnic lines. We already know that minorities, they tend to cluster around each other, right, in certain parts of cities; it happens all over.

“And we know that we have a sizeable Asian population in our community. We’ve had it for years. But, yet, we don’t have a visible Asian representative on our Council. And why is that? We need that. I want that.”

The U.S. Census shows that as of April 2020, the population of El Monte was 109,450. The Asian population made up 28% of that. Those of Hispanic/Latino descent comprised 65.7%.