NORWALK -- Marisa Perez was trailing incumbent Ted Edmiston for most of the evening in the Nov. 6 race for a seat on the Cerritos College Board of Trustees.

Shortly after midnight, Perez pulled ahead to beat Edmiston, a 22-year incumbent, by just 100 votes.

With that apparent win -- the votes are still being finalized -- Perez became a part of history.

For the first time, voters elected three Latino members, while four out of five incumbents were swept out of office under a new trustee district voting system.

The change at Cerritos College is an indicator of what may come throughout California as a growing number of school districts, college boards and cities scramble to switch from at-large voting to electoral districts in an attempt to dodge lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act.

"What we're seeing is the biggest and fastest change in local government since the early 1900s," said Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corp., a Glendale-based consulting firm that counsels cities and school districts on compliance with the California Voting Rights Act.

For the Norwalk-based Cerritos College Board, the elections brought a new face of diversity with three Latina representatives, a first for a board that serves a largely Latino population in southeast Los Angeles County.

Cerritos College President Linda Lacy said the board's decision to switch from an at-large system of electing trustees to seven trustee districts last year was a major catalyst for the change.


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"I believe this is the biggest change we've seen on the board," Lacy said. "We've had several long-serving board members who have served this board very well, and their experience will be missed. Now we have a new group coming in who all seem very bright and qualified. It's a time for new ideas."

Signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, the California Voting Rights Act prohibits local governments from holding at-large elections -- in which the whole community elects members of a governing body -- if that system impairs the ability of minority groups to elect candidates of their choice.

School boards and cities can be found liable if lawyers can prove the voting is polarized along racial lines.

The law gained strength in 2007 when the California Supreme Court deemed it constitutional following a claim from the city of Modesto that the act inherently favored people of color.

With the help of 2010 census data, lawyers across the state have targeted governing bodies who may be in violation, essentially changing the face of local elections.

Johnson said his firm has provided more than 250 demographic assessments for concerned cities and school districts in just the past 18 months.

"It's definitely an exploding field as jurisdictions try to get ahead of the lawyers," he said.

The majority of California school boards use at-large voting, as do many small cities. In district elections, candidates can run only in the district in which they live.

California Watch, an independent center for investigative reporting, has identified 70 school boards that have applied with the state Board of Education to switch to district-area elections since 2009. Most of them are located in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties.

Southern California cities and school boards that have voted to make the switch include the city of Compton, Pasadena Unified School District and Downey Unified School District.

Robert Rubin, a civil rights attorney who co-drafted the law along with Seattle law professor Joaquin Avila, said he plans to target all school districts and city councils until they are in compliance with the law.

"Our ultimate goal is to ensure that Latinos and Asians in particular have full and fair voting rights," he said.

After focusing on regions in Northern California and the Central Valley, Rubin, senior counsel at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said he's now taking a closer look at San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.

Cities like Bellflower, which has a 52 percent Latino population but currently no Latinos on the City Council, are potential targets.

"Bellflower is on our radar," he said.

Rubin said he's currently in a legal battle with the city of Anaheim.

Critics have argued that the law is a money grab for attorneys snapping up millions of dollars in legal fees. Proponents say the law is essential for equal voter representation.

Joanna Cuevas Ingram, a fellow with Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit dedicated to training lawyers in the area of public service, said more school districts and cities are moving to changing their voting system as a way to better serve their constituents.

"They're not just avoiding suits; they're looking to become more accountable to their communities," she said.

In the case of Cerritos College, the college last year was sued by lawyers representing a group of Latino residents who claimed the at-large system of voting left Latino voters underrepresented. College officials said the college had already started the process of switching to trustee districts when it was hit with the lawsuit.

The suit noted the district is more than 50 percent Latino, but the seven-member board had no current Latino trustees and had not had more than one Latino trustee at a time since 2003.

The college settled the suit out of court for $55,000.

Two of the plaintiffs, Carmen Avalos and Leonard Zuniga, also ran for seats on the board this month. Zuniga lost to incumbent and board president Robert Arthur, while Avalos beat out incumbent Tom Jackson, a retired faculty member who was first elected to the board in 2003.

Sandra Salazar, a local physician, also scored a victory, beating out incumbent Tina Cho with 58 percent of the votes. John Paul Drayer, a Bellflower educator, won a seat from incumbent Jean McHatton with 67 percent of the vote.

Avalos, the city clerk for the city of South Gate, said she had been pushing for years to get the college to change its voting system. Avalos previously served on the board from 2005 to 2009 and then lost a re-election bid.

Avalos, who immigrated here from Mexico with her family at age 3, said she faced significant hurdles as an undocumented immigrant. Despite the challenges, she went on to earn her bachelor's degree in biology from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a master's in education administration from Cal State Long Beach.

Now a 43-year-old mother of six, Avalos said she plans to work to provide the same educational opportunities for those who face similar struggles.

"I was concerned because we had no Hispanics serving the institution, our vote was completely diluted," she said. "Now I feel we have equity. We have a board that now resembles our community."

Area's population

The Cerritos College district serves a large and diverse area portion of southeast Los Angeles County, including the cities of Norwalk, Downey, Cerritos, Bellflower, Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens and portionsparts of Lakewood, Long Beach, La Mirada, Whittier and South Gate.

Here is a closer look at the populations of cities in the Cerritos College district, including the three largest ethnicities, according to the 2010 United States Census.

ARTESIA

Population 16,522

Asian 37.1%

Hispanic or Latino 35.8%

White (non-Hispanic) 21.3%

BELLFLOWER

Population 76,616

Hispanic or Latino 52.3%

White 19.5%

Black 14%

CERRITOS

Population 49,041

Asian 61.9%

White 16.6%

Hispanic or Latino 12%

DOWNEY

Population 111,772

Hispanic or Latino 70.7%

White 17.7%

Asian 7%

HAWAIIAN GARDENS

Population 14,254

Hispanic or Latino 77.2%

Asian 10.6%

White 7.3%

LAKEWOOD

Population 80,048

White 40.9%

Hispanic 30.1%

Asian 16.4%

LA MIRADA

Population 48,527

Hispanic or Latino 39.7%

White 38%

Asian 17.8%

LONG BEACH

Population 462,257

Hispanic or Latino 40.8%"

White persons not Hispanic 29.4%

Black 13.5%

NORWALK

Population 105,549

Hispanic or Latino 70.1%

White 12.3%

Asian 12%

SANTA FE SPRINGS

Population 16,223

Hispanic or Latino 81%

White 11.9%

Asian 4.2%

 

SOUTH GATE

Population 94,396

Hispanic or Latino 94.8%

Persons reporting two or more races 3.7%

White 3.4%

 

WHITTIER

Population 85,331

Hispanic or Latino 65.7%

White 28.3%

Asian 3.8%


kelly.puente@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2181, twitter.com/kellypuentept