Is the Cypress City Council afraid of diversity?

Cypress City Council balks at providing transcipts of meetings. Courtesy photo

By Malini Nagpal, BC-DMT, Ph.D.
For the Event-News Enterprise

On August 19, 2021 at 1:06 p.m., the City of Cypress City Hall published a Facebook post regarding the lawsuit against the city for an alleged violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Unfortunately, the post read more as propaganda than as unbiased information, and it contained a number of misleading statements, including,

“First and foremost, the City has received no evidence supporting such a claim and therefore we emphatically disagree that a violation exists.”

“Cypress may not be the only city sued by this firm, but we stand out as one of few cities to stand up and refuse to abandon our at-large voting system without evidence. Time and again, the complainants have failed to provide us with details or evidence of the alleged violation. Contrary to what is alleged, our review of the claim revealed undeniable trends of Asian American voters successfully making their voices heard in Cypress’ at-large elections.”

“Beyond analyzing our voting trends, we contacted the community after receiving the initial complaint letter—we conducted a survey and hosted a series of public forums throughout the City—both in person and online. The message was loud and clear— residents like the at-large election system and the opportunity to vote for all five council members.”

“If a legal proceeding produces evidence of a CVRA violation, we assure you that we will be the first ones eager to find a solution that meets state law as well as the needs of our unique City. Until then, the disenfranchisement of our residents is not an option that we believe is fair or reasonable.

Our city should base its final decision on a bedrock of facts, evidence, and transparency. We will not strip voters of the opportunity to elect the entire City Council without evidence of violation of state law and are ready to stand up for Cypress!”

I am writing this to place the lawsuit and the city’s recent statements in context. The city’s claim of being inclusive and respecting diversity – of economic status, neurodiversity, ethnicity, heritage, LQBTQIA, and abilities – is evanescent at best.

During the July 12, 2021 City Council meeting, many Cypress residents voiced that it behooves the City Council to select Carrie Katsumata Hayashida in the vacant city council position (previously held by Stacy Berry), as she had come in 3rd in the 2020 election. Some residents also voiced support for the city to hold a special election. However, City Council Member Morales had firmly noted that 16,050 (69.17%) residents of Cypress voted to pass Measure P whereby, they (people) entrusted the City Council to fill a vacant position by appointment. Next, four of four city council members, including the Mayor, voted to fill this position via an appointment process. Following this decision, on Aug. 23, 2021, the Cypress City Council appointed Scott Minikus to fill the vacant council member position.

Although the City may have saved approximately $200K-$250K by not holding a special election, a special election would have given the residents of Cypress a voice. Cypress City has approximately $171 million and an additional $11 million coming from federal funding. Spending $200k-$250k on a special election would have been worth it to ensure that every voice, including the voice of 2/3 of the non-white residents was heard and counted. At that time, I had no idea the lack of depth the city’s management and governance structure have about the makeup and experience of its diverse community.

After being passed over during the appointment process, Carrie Katsumata Hayashida reached out to attorney Kevin Shenkman regarding district elections in Cypress (see Carrie Katsumata Hayashida’s April 21, 2022 op-ed/letter). It is inferred from her op-ed that she reached out to Kevin Shenkman prior to Mr. Shenkman sending the initial demand letter to the City of Cypress alleging a CVRA violation and asking the city to voluntarily change from at-large to by-district elections. It is my understanding that in her anticipation to run for city council in the upcoming November 2022 election, Carrie Katsumata Hayashida has shifted her mind and is now in opposition of district voting. At which point, I and Katie Shapiro agreed to be the plaintiff(s) along with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Since the September 17, 2021 letter alleging CVRA violation, a lot has unfolded in Cypress that clearly demonstrates that our city governance and city management has very little knowledge of the Asian American Community in Cypress let alone the city’s diversity – socioeconomic statuses, heritage, ethnicities, LGBTQIA as well as neurodiversity. Although there are many examples of their lack of knowledge, in the interest of print space, I will only mention a few:

During the second oral communications period at the November 22, 2021 City council meeting, the then Mayor Jon Peat corrected a public commenter named Sara Rohani. Mayor Peat stated “I do wish to correct the misstatement which she made that we have never had a member of the AAPI community on the council. I believe Dr. Prakash Narain and Lydia Sondhi were both part of the Indian community and have been elected to our council. So that was not a correct statement.”

Peat’s statement was incorrect for two reasons. Dr. Lydia Sondhi herself is not from Asian American Pacific Island (AAPI) community. Rather, she is married to a person from South Asian descent, Jay Sondhi. Additionally, Jay Sondhi, who is a member of the AAPI community, ran twice for Cypress City Council – 2012 and 2014 – and lost both times. Such factually inaccurate statements clearly show that the City Council has an inadequate awareness of its own history, let alone the heritage of the previous Cypress City Council members and, by extension, the city’s Asian American residents. During the Jan, 24, 2022 City Council meeting, I raised this issue and clarified the fact regarding Dr. Lydia Sondhi’s heritage and Jay Sondhi’s electoral record. Yet, the Cypress City Council as well as city management seems to conveniently overlook these facts.

Even after this correction, the response letter sent on March 21, 2022 by the City Attorney Fred Galante to Attorney Kevin Shenkman by Cypress City Attorney incorrectly states:
“The only specifics in your letter identifies one Asian Council candidate’s unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Council. This ignores the above trend, but more importantly, overlooks the fact that the City has had a history of Asian American candidates being elected to the City Council. In 1998 and again 2002, Lydia Sondhi was elected to the City Council. Also, in 2006 and again 2010, Dr. Prakash Narain was elected to the City Council.”
Yet again, even after being corrected during the January 24, 2022 meeting, the city continued to point to Lydia Sondhi as an example of successful Asian American candidates, which Sondhi herself corrected in a comment to the Voice of OC.

To assert that a person is from any particular ethnic community or background solely based on the ‘name’ or worse yet who they are ‘married to’ in itself reeks of bias.

In addition, since the initial letter alleging a CVRA violation, the City Council voted, for the second time, against creating a policy allowing flags to be raised that would demonstrate support for LGBTQ and American Asian Pacific Islander community. Further, they also refused to recognize February as Black History Month.

The city’s response to hateful, racist flyers distributed in February, 2022 that targeted our Jewish residents was also insufficient. Rather than decry the blatant racism or express support for the Jewish community, the city issued a dismissive statement that downplayed the incident, stating that,

“Cypress is a diverse, welcoming community that is inclusive of all types of religions, races, genders, backgrounds, and beliefs which is what makes Cypress such a great place to live, work, and play. We take any form of hate, threats, or discrimination seriously and hope community members continue to be supportive and understanding of one another. Please contact the Cypress Police Department if you’ve experienced or witnessed any negative events. #StaySafe. “

Frankly, this is dismissive and an active attempt to denigrate the severity of the racist incidence. If we had single member district representation, the Council Member representing the area where these racist flyers were distributed could have strongly advocated for the community that he/she/they represent. Instead, right now we have Council Members who simply want to ‘keep it the way it is.’

This systematic method of ‘keeping it the way it is’ bleeds directly into how the city plans, negotiates, executes city development projects e.g. “Pay to Play” Lexington park/soccer sports complex, various service contracts e.g. Valley Vista Services, affordable housing initiative, and one of the worst things to unfold in our city, the negative impact to residents that live north of Lincoln due to the City Maintenance Yard being used as trash transfer site. Single Member Districting would afford representation to every neighborhood in Cypress as well as for people from all socioeconomic status, ethnicity, communities, and abilities. The voices of all five City Council members would carry the same weight.

To make matters worse, at the May 23, 2022 council meeting, the City Manager Mr. Grant and a Council Member both admonished and yelled at the public speaking in support for the proposal to provide transcription of meetings for people who experience hearing loss. Of note is that this is not the first time the council members and city management have gotten unhinged. Over the past year, the male council members have frequently displayed overt contempt for a fellow female council member and more specifically towards the only woman of color.

During this same meeting Council Member Minikus placed forth a Diversity Proclamation. The proclamation entirely omits the LGBTQIA+ community and ignores many aspects of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative. Just one example is the use of the word ‘other’. By using ‘other’, the council is endorsing the phenomenon of othering whereby individuals are defined and labeled as not fitting in. By othering, the council is essentially saying it is an “us vs. them” situation, saying that “they are not like me” or “they are not one of us.” Link to the Diversity Proclamation

The City also asserts that “The message was loud and clear–residents like the at-large elections.” Based on what? Poorly attended public forums and a survey in which the same person could vote over and over again? On a response of about 150 people that was fairly evenly divided in a city of 50,000? The perplexing part is not only this; it is also that the council voted to not hold an at-large-election to fill the vacant council member position so that they can save approximately $200k-$250k. Conversely, they are now willing to spend millions to fight a lawsuit to keep an at-large-election process. If the council believes at-large-election is fair, then why did they not hold that to fill the vacant council member position in July/August of 2021? Why leverage Measure P as an excuse to appoint a person of their choice rather than give the residents a voice to vote?

Based on my experience with the Cypress City Council and the City Management and witnessing all that has unfolded over the past year, I support single member districting. Aside from the fact that Cypress should be in compliance with California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), districting would allow the city governance to more intimately represent people from all socioeconomic status (low, middle, high, and anywhere in between). The voices of all five city council members would carry the same weight, which has been missing from City of Cypress governance for quite a while. The City’s governance should be representing the people that make up the city.

I ask again, what is the Council and the City afraid of?