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City of Bellflower Slammed With Landmark Voting Rights Lawsuit by Mexican-American Advocates

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By Brian Hews

Officials in the City of Bellflower have been hit with a lawsuit on Monday afternoon that if successful could change the political landscape of the Southeast Los Angeles based community for decades to come.

On Tuesday, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Foundation told Hews Media Group-Community Newspapers that it filed suit against the City of Bellflower for violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

According to the lawsuit, the City of Bellflower uses an at-large method to elect its Council Members, which has denied Latino and African American residents the opportunity to elect Council Members of their choice.

“Bellflower’s at-large method of election prevents Latino and African American voters from electing candidates of our choice,” says Luis Melliz, a plaintiff in the case.

“It was time to do something.  Latinos and African Americans have a right to have a voice in what happens in Bellflower,” Melliz said.

Joining Melliz in the lawsuit is Bellflower residents Bertha Valenzuela, and Gloria Willingham-Toure.

“Successful local governance is increasingly critical in our democracy,” stated Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel.  “Bellflower will thrive under a system that ensures fair representation for all voters throughout the entirety of the City.”

The lawsuit states that the majority of the residents of Bellflower are Latino, and thirty-seven percent of the citizen voting-age population is Latino. In addition, fourteen percent of the CVAP of Bellflower is African American.

“However, there is no Latino or African American representation on the five-member City Council. Bellflower’s at-large election process does not require candidates to reside in any particular portion or zone of the City, and each eligible voter may vote for any candidate, regardless of where that voter resides. MALDEF and its co-counsel argue that this method has led to vote dilution, and has prevented Latinos and African Americans from electing candidates of their choice or influencing the outcome of City Council elections,” the lawsuit stresses.

The suit also charges, “moreover, patterns of racially polarized voting in Bellflower elections have been detrimental to the mobilization of Latino and African American voting power, allowing white voters to defeat Latino and African American voting strength.”

The MALDEF lawsuit claims that in City Council elections where there have been Latino and African American candidates, non-minority candidates and their supporters have resorted to discriminatory and racially polarizing campaign tactics have made it even more difficult for minority candidates to obtain crossover non-minority votes, which are necessary to win election under the at-large system.”

Matthew Barragan, MALDEF Staff Attorney, stated:  “Latinos and African Americans have been shut out of Bellflower’s electoral process because of the at-large election system. The remedy to this unlawful process is to create districts. The CVRA was enacted to bring equal opportunity to the electoral process in jurisdictions like Bellflower.”

“The City of Bellflower has been on notice for years about its violations of the CVRA.  In March 2009, lawyers sent the city a letter pointing out that its at-large election system violates the CVRA.  At the same time, several citizens of Bellflower sent the city a similar letter requesting a change of its at-large system. In May 2013, lawyers again sent a letter to Bellflower demanding a change in the at-large system. Since then, numerous citizens and voters of Bellflower, and several public officials, have communicated to the City Council their belief that the at-large election system used to elect the City Council discriminates against minority voters and violates the CVRA, and have petitioned for a change to a by-district election system.  The City has rejected and ignored the lawyers’ and citizens’ demands to change its election system,” the lawsuit claims.

Laura Ho, partner at Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho, said, “The interests of the entire community are best served by complying with the CVRA and by creating a district election system which assures residents of the diverse areas of Bellflower will be able to select representatives of their choice who are accountable to them.”

Ryan Smoot, a spokesperson for the City of Bellflower was contacted by HMG-CN about the lawsuit on Monday.  Smoot said he has not seen a copy of the filing and would be making a statement as soon as city officials have the opportunity to review the lawsuit.

See complaint click here.

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