By Alex Dobuzinskis
ANAHEIM, California (Reuters) - Civil unrest over fatal police shootings of two Hispanic men has divided the normally placid city best known as the home of Disneyland and renewed calls by Anaheim's growing Latino community for a greater say in local government.
The City Council this week voted 3-2 to reject a proposed ballot measure to end Anaheim's at-large voting system and have council members elected from specific districts, a change that supporters say would have given Hispanics more of a voice in the city of more than 335,000.
The three council members who opposed putting the proposal on the November ballot said they wanted more time to study alternatives to the at-large system.
Latinos make up nearly 53 percent of Anaheim's population, up from less than 47 percent in 2000, U.S. census figures showed. But only three Latinos have ever been elected to the City Council, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The five-person City Council in Anaheim, the largest California city still electing its leaders on an at-large basis, is mostly made up of whites, but one member of the panel is originally from India and another claims Hispanic heritage as the daughter of a man from Spain.
The Orange County tourism hub made headlines last month when violent protests erupted following two fatal weekend police shootings of Hispanic men, one of whom was unarmed, leading to dozens of arrests and smashed storefront windows.
"I think there's a feeling of many people that there's not one Anaheim, and maybe a sense of not belonging and a feeling that they don't own their government, and none of that's good," Mayor Tom Tait told Reuters in a phone interview.
It was Tait who introduced the defeated proposal to have Anaheim voters decide in November whether to adopt a council district system. Such a system could potentially create at least one majority-Latino district, the ACLU said.
The ACLU sued Anaheim in June over its election system on behalf of three Latino plaintiffs, claiming at-large districts violate the state Voting Rights Act by denying Hispanics an opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.
It remains unclear whether the controversy over municipal elections was a factor in last month's civil disturbances. But recent unrest in Anaheim exposed a divide between the city's wealthier, mostly white Anaheim Hills neighborhood in the east, home to all but one City Council member, and predominantly Latino areas to the west known as the flatlands.
In the mostly Latino west and central Anaheim, about 60 percent of residents had household incomes of $50,000 or less, according to a study from Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD). In Anaheim Hills, 75 percent of people had household incomes of $50,000 or above.
West Anaheim has fewer than five parks per 50,000 residents, as compared with more than 11 parks for the same number of people in Anaheim Hills, OCCORD said.
And a 2009 OCCORD survey of 524 families in three of Anaheim's mainly Latino neighborhoods near Disneyland found 40 percent of families reported incomes of $25,000 or less.
SPARK FOR UNREST
It was in the working-class, largely Latino neighborhood of Anna Drive that on July 21 a police officer shot and killed Manuel Diaz, 25, after a foot chase. Police say Diaz, a suspected gang member, was unarmed.
The next day, officers shot and killed Joel Acevedo, 21, after he opened fire on them while being chased, police said.
Two nights later, residents and activists gathered at City Hall to protest the police shootings in a demonstration that devolved into clashes with police when protesters threw chairs through windows of a Starbucks coffee shop and damaged about 20 other businesses.
It was the most violent of several protests to hit Anaheim in recent weeks.
The shootings that led to those demonstrations occurred as law enforcement data shows a recent spike in the use of deadly force by Anaheim police. The city's officers have opened fire in the line of duty seven times so far in 2012, compared with only four officer-involved shootings in all of last year and one in 2010, police said. Five people have died from police shootings this year alone.
Police say their increased use of firearms coincides with officers facing more armed gang members in recent months.
FBI statistics show the number of violent crimes in Anaheim rose to 1,281 in 2011 from 1,161 the year before, while murders more than doubled to 15. At the same time, the number of violent crimes reported to police across the United States fell by 4 percent in 2011, according to the FBI.
On Friday, more than 100 federal agents and local police officers fanned out across Orange County to target an Anaheim street gang. Forty-nine people face criminal charges following the crackdown, federal officials said.
At a City Council meeting on Wednesday, some residents took to the microphone to complain that in certain Anaheim neighborhoods people are not doing enough to stop crime by cooperating with police or keeping their children out of gangs.
But a larger share of speakers at the meeting, which took place among shouting matches and heckling, called for district-based council elections. Many of those arguing for the change were Latino, and some addressed the council in Spanish.
"Having district elections will really open the door to so many communities that have been shut down by the city of Anaheim," said resident Marisol Ramirez, 20.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Vicki Allen)