By Alex Dobuzinskis
ANAHEIM, California (Reuters) - The largest city in California to elect its council through an at-large system rejected a proposal on Wednesday that could have given Latinos a greater voice in Anaheim government and eased racial tensions in a community torn apart by violent protests over police shootings.
The city council rejected the proposal in a 3-2 vote, despite Walt Disney Co and others endorsing a change in the election process that have divided the city of 335,000 into council districts.
The southern California city is best known as the home of Disneyland, the theme park dubbed "the happiest place on Earth." But local leaders and residents say the city has been far from happy in recent weeks.
A pair of fatal shootings by police officers against suspected gang members of Hispanic heritage, including one man who was unarmed, over a single weekend last month sparked major clashes between residents and officers. Five people have been killed in 2012 after being shot by Anaheim police.
On the night of July 24, protesters threw chairs through the windows of a Starbucks and damaged about 20 businesses in the largest of several raucous demonstrations to rock the city since the shootings.
Some residents of the working class, largely Latino area where the unarmed man was shot by an officer following a foot chase say Hispanics do not have enough voice in city government.
This comes as the ACLU of Southern California has accused the city in a lawsuit filed in June of violating the California Voting Rights Act by not allowing Latinos to elect the representative of their choice. The group says only three Latinos have ever been elected to the Anaheim city council.
Anaheim is the largest city in California to elect its council through an at-large system, in which council members are chosen by voters throughout the city rather than to represent specific districts, ACLU attorney Bardis Vakili said.
Census figures show nearly 53 percent of Anaheim residents are Latino, but since some immigrants in that group are not citizens and others are too young to cast ballots, Latinos make up only a third of the city's electorate, Vakili said. Without having a predominantly Hispanic council district, they have been unable to choose the representative of their choice, he said.
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, following pressure from the ACLU lawsuit and criticism from local activists, had proposed to have Anaheim voters decide in November on a proposal to switch to a district system for electing members of the council.
"This is about who shall decide. Who shall decide how we are to be governed?" Tait said during the meeting on Wednesday at a local high school.
"Fundamentally, I believe the question of how we are to be governed should be asked of the people," he added.
But the council voted to postpone a decision on Tait's recommendation, which the mayor said would prevent the city from getting the proposal before voters in time for the November general election.
In addressing residents and activists in the meeting hall calling for district elections, City Council Member Harry Sidhu said the city needed to study the issue more.
"What you are asking us to do is to change ... the history of 150 years of how this city has been governed," he said.
During the meeting, people in the crowd of nearly 300 in attendance waved signs at the council members, and addressed the panel for over three hours in public comments that at times devolved into shouting matches between residents.
Even the Walt Disney Co has weighed in. A letter from George Kalogridis, the president of Disneyland, sent this week to Anaheim leaders said the company supports electing council members by district.
"We believe that city leadership should reflect the diversity of its entire population," he wrote.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)