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Anaheim City Council gave residents a chance to voice their concerns Wednesday over diversity in the local government, weeks after violent protests sparked by a pair of deadly police shootings rocked the city. Vikki Vargas reports from Anaheim for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on August 8, 2012.
Dozens of people lined up to have their say Wednesday afternoon at a special meeting of Anaheim City Council meant to address political representation of Latinos in the wake of police shootings and resulting protests that have roiled the city.
The meeting was moved to Anaheim High School, to accommodate big crowds. And the big crowds came.
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait tried to set a civil course for the meeting, which was proceeding without incident late Wednesday afternoon.
"For the past two and a half weeks, I've asked for patience while we let the process run its course -- as we all seek the truth," Tait said.
The meeting was expected to focus in part on a proposal to alter how City Council members are elected, with the goal of increasing Latino representation in the majority-Latino city.
The proposal was endorsed by the politically powerful Disneyland Resort in a statement issued Wednesday morning.
The meeting comes after two shootings last month in which police killed fleeing suspects – incidents that marked a spike in officer-involved shootings.
The violence prompted repeated protests in Orange County's largest city, in turn inspiring solidarity rallies in other cities, some of them organized by members of the Occupy movement.
At the meeting, speakers voiced sometimes opposing views on how the city should address recent incidents.
"We need a change," businessman John Denton said. "But the change that the business people are asking for (is) to bring the police department, the community, the business leaders together without fighting. We need to heal."
Others said they want dramatic change.
"We have a city that is broken and it needs to be fixed," resident Catherine Smith said.
The first item before the council was labeled "listening to our Anaheim community," according to the online agenda. And it appeared that would take several hours.
Most important to activists, the council was slated to vote on whether to place a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that would create six districted council seats, replacing the existing at-large system that lets all city voters cast ballots on each of four council seats and in the mayor's race.
The potential change is similar to what has been sought in a lawsuit filed in June – before the recent violence – by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The ACLU alleges in its complaint that the city's existing voting system violates resident's rights under the state voting rights law.
Tait and at least one other council member have announced support for a proposed districted voting system, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday. The paper reported its analysis showed deep ethnic segregation among the city's neighborhoods.
Disneyland Resort's statement in said the proposed election changes would be "a step toward an even stronger and more prosperous Anaheim."
"As communities evolve, so should their policies and structures. Such is the case in Anaheim, where it is time to consider a change in the way future city leaders are elected," the resort said in a statement.
"We believe that city leadership should reflect the diversity of its entire population. We support a city council elected from districts and encourage the City of Anaheim to move from at-large elections to district voting. This shift will allow each valued neighborhood to be represented by a local council member of their choosing," the Disney statement continued.
The council met last week behind closed doors over the ACLU lawsuit. It has not filed a response in court yet, according to ACLU staff attorney Bardis Vakili.
Vakili said the recent protests come in part from the same frustration that prompted the lawsuit: the lack of representation of Latinos in city government.
The city of 336,000 has had just three Latino elected leaders in its 142 years, according to the ACLU lawsuit. There are currently no Latinos on the council.
The lawsuit alleges a history of discrimination. "In 1924, at least three Ku Klux Klan members were elected to the City Council and earned the City the nickname 'Klanaheim,'" the complaint states. It adds that in the same year, Anaheim held that largest white supremacist rally in California history.
The city is nearly 53 percent Latino of any race, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
"I think the strong reaction from the Latino community is a symptom of a much deeper problem, which is this feeling that's gone on for decades and generations of feeling disempowered," Vakili said.
"The Latino community does not have a voice in their government, have no say what happens to them in their own city. When you have this feeling that you can't control what happens to you in this city, and you have no avenues to seek accountability, to seek relief, then you're going to have frustration that just builds and festers," he added.
The city in 1992 considered and rejected the possibility of districted elections, and Latino activists have been raising the issue since then, Vakili added.
The council will also on Wednesday consider the creation of a citizens advisory committee on "elections and community involvement," according to the agenda.
Speakers at Wednesday's meeting were allowed 3 minutes each to address the council.
Police spokesman Sgt. Bob Dunn said authorities expected the response Wednesday to be peaceful, but contingency plans were in place for a response from additional officers.
The meeting was being streamed live at Anaheim's city website.
Vikki Vargas contributed to this report.