Vince Buck is CSUF Professor Emeritus, Political Science
Fullerton City Councilmembers have all been elected by district only since December 2020. The districts were first created in 2016, but now that the federal decennial census is complete, the City is required by both federal and state laws, including the recently passed Fair Maps Act, to adopt new district boundaries. Lest we expect too much from this process, it is well to recall how the initial districting process transpired, why it came about, and how it has worked out.
Prior to 2018, the city of Fullerton was governed by a council elected at-large (city wide). More often than not this resulted in a council comprised entirely of Anglo males most of whom shared the same political viewpoint, a viewpoint that was agreeable to the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Women’s Club, to mention just two. While there were some councils that were not so homogeneous; Asians, Latinos, and for that matter women, were rarely part of the council majority.
In 2014, the City was sued under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by two plaintiffs in two separate suits arguing that at-large voting diluted the votes of Asians and Latinos. In 2010, the City was 34% Hispanic and 24% Asian. The City settled, agreeing to put a measure on the ballot in 2016 to establish by-district City Council elections and the boundaries that would define the Council districts. The measure passed with 54% of the vote. Much had transpired between the settlement agreement and the measure being placed on the ballot.
To begin, the City hired demographer David Ely from a well-respected firm, Compass Demographics, to work with City staff to hold community meetings and come up with recommendations that met the requirements of the CVRA. The process was open and community participation was encouraged. The criteria for districts that were perhaps most important were that the districts be roughly equal in population and that minority votes should not be diluted.
But other factors were included as well: compactness, contiguity, cohesiveness, and the integrity of “communities of interest.”
Although four community open houses were held, attendance was not robust. In addition to the open houses, the demographer shared his software with various individuals and groups, some of which created their own maps. At the end of the process, many of the individuals and groups that had participated had come to agreement on “Map 2b.” This map created one district that was 58.8% Asian and 2 districts that were 51.9% and 61.1% Latino by population (not by voters or voting age population). Three districts had a Democratic edge in voter registration.
Then things got interesting. A downtown bar/restaurant owner, Jeremy Popoff appeared before Council, stating that he was speaking for downtown business owners and argued that downtown was so important to everyone that every district should include part of downtown (e.g., Harbor Boulevard north of the rail line) and he provided a map that would do this (Map 8a, AKA Bar Map). Mr. Popoff had not participated in any of the public meetings or worked with Mr. Ely, and it is doubtful that he came up with the idea of having each district include a chunk of downtown by himself. Nor is it clear where the map came from. However, strongest support on the Council came from Councilmember Jennifer Fitzgerald who was well connected with organizations with this expertise.
The groups that coalesced around Map 2b felt correctly that all their work and efforts were being dismissed out of hand, and many residents of the downtown felt correctly that their “community of interest” was being dismantled and their political influence diluted by being broken into small segments that could be easily ignored.
While the main impact of Bar Map was, arguably, to reduce the political influence of the residents of downtown, in favor of the business interests, perhaps more important was that Bar Map created three Republican districts compared to the three Democratic Districts in Map 2b. This was probably the real purpose of Mr. Popoff’s map. (City Council Elections are nonpartisan in name only.)
The map also included an otherwise illogical dogleg into District 2, in order to place politically conservative Councilmember Greg Sebourn into the newly-configured District 3.
The Council accepted this (Bar Map). None of the councilmembers supported Map 2b, which had the most support with the participating public. They were all able to rationalize ignoring the public. Among the most blatant rationalizations (without evidence) were that the council chamber was being packed with people from outside of the City, and according to Councilmember Chaffee, that this was not a popularity contest and the Council’s job was to deal with the facts and to do what was best for the City. It is not clear what “facts” he had in mind.
The electorate accepted this map when they voted in 2016 to approve the ballot measure creating Fullerton’s first by-district elections starting in 2018. Also winning approval of the electorate in 2016 was Jesus Silva, running in Fullerton’s last at-large election. That resulted in two councilmembers residing in District 3, Sebourn and Silva.
The same City Council that selected the Bar Map, minus Jan Flory and with the addition of Jesus Silva, then had to decide which two of the five council districts would be on the ballot in 2018. Not surprisingly they decided that Districts three and five would be filled in 2018, the year that Councilmember Sebourn’s at-large term was up. This meant that when Councilmember Silva’s term ended in 2020, there would be no seat available for him unless he ran again in 2018.
What is to be learned from this experience for the current redistricting process? The principal lesson is that when it comes down to it, the outcome of an open public participation exercise, even when it results in agreement, can be dismissed and rationalized away by a Council majority if the proposed outcome does not suit its preferences.
Second, it is worth noting that things do not always work out as planned. Recognizing what the Council had done, Silva ran for the District 3 seat in 2018 even though he still had two years left in his at-large term. With the help of a large Democratic turnout, including students, due to important state and national issues, Silva won the expected Republican seat 54% to 37%.
It was also expected by many that Districts 4 and 5 would elect Latino councilmembers, but in 2018 Syrian immigrant Ahmad Zahra won District 5, and in 2020, absent Latino/a opposition, long-time resident Bruce Whitaker, who had served 10 years as an at-large councilmember, was elected to District 4, giving weight to the old saying; don’t count your chickens until they are hatched.
Who are the Commissioners?
Greg Sebourn (Chair) was appointed by Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap. Sebourn is the former Mayor of Fullerton and served on City Council from 2012-2018, when he was defeated by Jesus Silva in the newly-created District 3. He has served on various city and county commissions and committees.
James Lira (Vice Chair) was appointed by Councilmember Fred Jung. He is a veteran and a maintenance technician for the company Oakley. He has a degree in computer electronics and engineering technology.
Vivien “Kitty” Jaramillo was appointed by Councilmember Ahmad Zahra. She was one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit alleging that Fullerton’s former at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act, which resulted in district elections. She has served on the Fullerton Homeless Task Force.
John Seminara who was appointed by Mayor Bruce Whitaker is the former principal engineer and president at Southern California Geotechncial, Inc. He studied Geological Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has served on the Transportation and Circulation Commission.
Dr. Jody Vallejo was appointed by Councilmember Jesus Silva. Vallejo is Associate Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. She is also Associate Director of USC Equity Research Institute and Co-Director of Graduate Studies in Sociology. Her research areas include immigration, immigrant integration, race/ethnicity, and inequality, poverty, and mobility.
Tony Bushala was appointed on a 3-2 vote (Jaramillo and Vallejo “no”). Bushala is the co-owner of Bushala Brothers, Inc, a real estate property management company in Fullerton. He is a significant property owner in Fullerton and frequent contributor to political campaigns. He is the founder of Fullerton Heritage, and has been involved in historic preservation.
Shawn Nelson was appointed on a 3-2 vote (Jarmillo and Vallejo “no”). Nelson was an Orange County Supervisor from 2010-2015. Nelson was elected to the Fullerton City Council in November 2002, and served until 2008. He is currently Chief Assistant District Attorney for Orange County.
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