Dept. of Justice accusations unclear as divided Council approves hiring voting rights attorney

August 23, 1999
Santa Paula City Council
One councilmember wants to settle but the others voted to fight, but just what the Department of Justice allegations are no one is sure of, at least not the public. After a brief closed session meeting Monday, the City Council voted 4-1 to retain the services of a voting rights attorney to study Santa Paula voting patterns and previous elections to determine if Latinos, the city’s majority of citizens, have equal political opportunity to vote and take part in local elections.The move was prompted by a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which has been investigating the city since 1998. The city has refused to release the letter claiming that it represents potential litigation.The sharply divided council approved an initial $10,000 to retain Santa Monica-based John E. McDermott of the legal firm of Howrey & Simon of Washington, D.C.Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinosa cast the lone dissenting vote, opting to enter into a consent decree “as recommended by the Department of Justice” and settle the matter through negotiation.City Attorney Phil Romney said after the closed session that there was no resolution mentioned by the DOJ in the letter.Espinosa is the only Latino member of the City Council in a city where over 2/3s of the residents and a majority of the two largest school board district boards of trustee are Latino.Mayor Jim Garfield said he is still trying to sort out the DOJ matter: “I personally don’t have enough information yet from the Department of Justice to what the basis of their charges are. I can’t imagine this community, which is largely Latino, has not elected those they want to serve them,” on the City Council. “I believe the majority of the council is seriously concerned with benefitting all the people that live here.”Garfield stressed that the council as yet does not have details of the basis of the not yet publicly revealed allegations, but is willing to spend the funds to research demographics and voting patterns.
“The city should negotiate with the Department of Justice,” to bring closure to the issue, said Espinosa, who refused further comment.Citizens have been divided on the issue, with those supporting the DOJ investigation blaming low-Latino voter turnout on a lack of polling places and other issues that keep Latinos from running for office; others, including Latinos, blame voter apathy for low turnout at election time throughout the city in general, no matter who is running for office.According to the County Clerk’s office, voting patterns in precincts in the predominately Latino east end of the city during the November 1998 election was about 30 percent, while elsewhere in Santa Paula turnout hovered around 40 percent.For previous Story

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