Latino residents sue Cerritos College over election system

NORWALK - Facing a lawsuit challenging how its trustees are elected, the Cerritos Community College District unanimously approved a resolution this month to elect future trustees from seven separate "trustee areas" instead of one "at-large" district.The Board of Trustees, which oversees Cerritos College, voted at its regular meeting on Oct. 5 to adopt the change, which replaces the current electoral system and requires future trustees to come from seven distinct communities. The Board approved the resolution just one week after three local residents filed a lawsuit against the Cerritos Community College District challenging the district's use of the at-large election system, which critics believe undermines fair representation for students. In the lawsuit, Tom Chavez, Carmen Avalos, and Downey resident Leonard Zuniga claim the at-large elections specifically dilute the voting strength of Latino voters, allowing the district to be controlled by a small minority of residents who live or are active in the City of Cerritos. Avalos, who was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2005, but lost reelection in 2009, maintains the goal of the lawsuit is to simply rectify an injustice and create fair representation in the college district, which includes the cities of Artesia, Bellflower, Cerritos, Downey, Hawaiian Gardens, La Mirada, Norwalk, and portions of Bell Gardens, Lakewood, Long Beach, Santa Fe Springs and South Gate. "We're not trying to sue the district, just to sue the district," said Avalos. "No one wants to file a lawsuit. We just want to remedy the situation and do what's best for our community." However, Cerritos College is pushing back, asking the group to drop the lawsuit immediately. According to Mark Wallace, who oversees public affairs and governmental relations for the college, the district was already working towards adopting the new "by-trustee area" system prior to the lawsuit. "We formally asked for them to withdrawl, there is no point defending a lawsuit that is pointless," Wallace said. "The college district is responsible for paying and these are unnecessary costs to the college and taxpayers." Wallace said the Community College League of California, which oversees 72 community college districts around the state, encouraged all college districts in February to consider adopting "by-trustee area" elections. "The Board began looking at changing the trustee elections as required under the California Voter Rights Act," said Wallace. "At the same time, we switched our trustee election years from odd to even years to save money." Wallace said the election date change from November 2011 to November 2012 gave the district an additional year before it had to adopt the new trustee election system. Unaware of the Board's plans, Chavez, Avalos, and Zuniga sent a letter to the district in June protesting the at-large system and requesting a "by-district" system replace the current system. Wallace said the district informed the group that the Board would be considering a resolution in October to adopt "by-trustee area" elections, but Chavez, Avalos, and Zuniga, along with attorneys Joaquin Avila and Morris Baller, filed a lawsuit against the Cerritos Community College District, arguing the district did not act in a sufficient or timely manner. "Before filing this case we brought this problem to the attention of the district but it didn't take the necessary steps to change," said Baller. "Therefore our clients are determined to change the election system through this legal action so that Board members are elected by districts where they reside, and will be more responsive to the needs of voters within their own districts." Although the Board approved the new election system, the college district must now wait for the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges to accept the resolution. Upon approval, the Board of Trustees will hold public hearings to review and consider possible trustee area plans to submit to the Board of Governors for adoption. Wallace said the college district anticipates adopting a plan by December 7.

********** Published: October 20, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 27