Escondido has hired a high-profile Orange County attorney to defend the city against a lawsuit alleging that its at-large elections discriminate against Latinos and must be replaced by a system electing City Council members by smaller geographic districts.
City Attorney Jeff Epp said he recently hired John Ramirez of Costa Mesa's Rutan & Tucker law firm because Ramirez has litigated cases involving the California Voting Rights Act and has successfully defended cities across the state against a variety of lawsuits.
Ramirez's hiring follows vows from Mayor Sam Abed and other council members that Escondido would fight the lawsuit despite the potential cost to taxpayers.
Modesto, a city in Central California, spent nearly $3 million fighting a similar lawsuit and was still forced to adopt districts.
Ramirez said Tuesday that it could take 12 to 18 months for a resolution to the lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 20 on behalf of five Escondido Latinos and the state's Building and Construction Trades Council.
"I certainly don't think this case will be settled in a matter of weeks," said Ramirez, whose contract with the city pays him $350 an hour.
Ramirez, 41, is a prominent attorney who was named a "rising star" by Law & Politics magazine in 2006. In 2002, the Los Angeles Daily Journal declared Ramirez among the top 20 lawyers in the state under age 40.
Mayor Abed said Ramirez would help the city respond to the lawsuit by a deadline at the end of January.
"He understands voting rights law and he will put the city in the best position to defend ourselves," Abed said.
Ramirez declined Tuesday to discuss any of his previous cases involving voting rights. But a review of his bio on the Rutan & Tucker website shows that he relied on voting rights law to help plaintiffs in Monterey get an initiative pulled off the ballot because the petitions used for signature gathering weren't bilingual.
James Finberg, a San Francisco attorney who filed the lawsuit against the city, said Tuesday that he has never litigated against Ramirez.
Finberg said Ramirez's experience with voting rights appeared limited to initiatives but hasn't included other elements of the state's Voting Rights Act, such as racially polarized voting.
Finberg is part of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a coalition of attorneys that has successfully forced several cities and school districts to adopt geographic districts in recent years.
The coalition is not formally involved in the Escondido case.
Latinos lack power
The lawsuit says at-large districts deny Latinos political power in Escondido by making it difficult for them to win. It demands that Escondido help Latinos get elected by creating one or two districts in the city's center, the area with the largest concentration of Latinos.
The suit also says the lack of Latinos on Escondido's City Council, where only two Latinos have served since 1888, is a key reason the council has pursued anti-Latino policies in recent years.
Those include a failed attempt in 2006 to prohibit landlords from renting to illegal immigrants, a day-labor ordinance proposed in 2008 but never adopted, and an abandoned effort to restrict parking in inner-city neighborhoods, where many Latino families share houses and apartments.
The city also hired Ramirez in 2006 to defend the rental ban, but his contract was nullified a few days later when Rutan & Tucker determined the firm would have a conflict of interest if he took the case. The city eventually abandoned the legislation after it was struck down by a judge.
Finberg said Tuesday that the voting rights lawsuit was strong enough that he would probably ask for a summary judgment, which would eliminate any trial and force a judge to rule based on opinions from experts.
He said his confidence was based on Latinos being a protected class and that voting in Escondido has been polarized by race.
But Mayor Abed said Tuesday that districts would hurt Latinos instead of helping them by isolating Latinos geographically and economically.
"Districts would pit neighborhood versus neighborhood and whites versus Hispanics," Abed said. "It makes no sense to divide a relatively small community like Escondido up."
However, Councilwoman Olga Diaz, a Latino, said Tuesday that districts would give Latinos a consistent voice on the council and make each council member an expert on a smaller geographic area.
She said districts would also reduce the cost of elections, opening the process to more residents.
Diaz has urged her colleagues to settle the lawsuit by adopting districts. She said that approach would save the city millions of dollars and allow the community to draw the districts instead of outsiders.
"Do we really want a judge to tell us how it's going to be?" she asked.
Escondido would be the first city in North County to adopt geographic voting districts. San Diego is the only city of the 18 in this county with such districts, and only about 30 of California's 482 cities elect council members by district, according to the League of California Cities.
In 2003, the Justice Department investigated whether Vista's at-large system violated the federal voting rights act, but found no evidence that it had.
By David Garrick, firstname.lastname@example.org, 760-740-5468
Source: North County Times