In the previous Observer I mentioned that the principal lesson to be learned from the original City Council district drawing exercise in 2015-16 is that public input, even where there is broad agreement, can be dismissed and rationalized away if the proposed district boundaries do not suit a majority on the City Council.
The situation is different for redistricting in 2021-22, but it is not off to a good start, and the result may well be the same. There are four principal differences. First, there are incumbents in existing districts with defined boundaries who may want to protect their turf and/or improve their electoral chances.
Second, in 2020, new State legislation known as the Fair Maps Act (AB849) took effect. In 2015-16, the boundary drawing process was dictated by the terms of a political settlement between the city of Fullerton and the two plaintiffs. In many ways AB849 is similar to the settlement regarding the public input process and the number of community meetings and public hearings, as well as calling for the boundaries to be drawn “in accordance with applicable federal and state law,” including the Voting Rights Act as amended and “criteria set forth in Elections Code 21601.” What has changed is that AB849 rewrote Elections Code 21601 from what were vague references to topography, geography, communities of interest, and other factors that “may” be considered, to a prioritized set of explicit criteria that “shall” be used when adopting district boundaries. Also prohibited is partisan gerrymandering, all of which would now prevent carving up the downtown area as is currently the case. How, or how effectively, this will be enforced is a big question mark.
Third, while the boundaries were unanimously approved by the City Council in 2016, we now have a Council that cannot even get three votes on annual budgetary issues. This does not bode well for coming to agreement on districts which will have a longer lifetime.
Fourth, the Council has established a Redistricting Advisory Commission (RAC). Presumably this Commission will present the Council with an agreed upon map or map options. The Commission is only advisory (an independent commission was dismissed out of hand) and like last time, the Council can simply ignore the Commission’s input or advice.
It is not clear why the Council established the RAC (or why anyone would want to serve on it as currently configured) or what the Council hopes the RAC will accomplish. Probably the Council was just kicking the can down the road, but there is very little that the Commission can do that cannot be done jointly by staff and the demographer. Any demographer working today has powerful software that could create a set of acceptable districts in half an hour, once the guidelines and requirements of AB849 are met and the data are plugged in.
The most valuable thing that the Commission can do, in addition to putting forth a robust effort to gather public input, would be to identify districts that could have widespread public support and then build that support for those proposals. For that to happen, the committee would have to have credibility based on its openness, representativeness, diversity, and perceived objectivity.
I don’t believe that is going to happen. As currently constituted the Commission is not representative and unlikely to be objective. Each Councilmember appointed a RAC member who generally reflects his political views. These five RAC members then selected two more members. But rather than scour the applicant pool for two individuals who would bring more balance to the committee and who would look at the task objectively and not through a political prism, the conservative majority on the Commission, without discussion, selected two individuals who are deeply politically involved and who reflect the majority’s collective outlook. The two minority Committee members were outvoted on these selections each time. See Jane Rands’ article in the early November issue of The Observer.
I have a good deal of respect for many of the members of this commission, but given their political histories (e.g., two former councilmembers) this is not a group that one would choose to come up with a fair and unbiased map. Most members have political axes to grind, and while they may not choose to sharpen them on this project regardless of what result the Commission might propose because of its make-up, it will be viewed with suspicion by the community.
The only possible way that the Commission can overcome this distrust would be to come up with options that have unanimous Commission support. More likely, maps will receive a 5-2 vote, which may (or may not) reflect neither fairness nor public input. And unless there is a map with such an outpouring of support that to resist it would be political suicide, the Council will be free to ignore all the effort that has gone into this process and do as the Council majority may choose.
The next Redistricting Advisory Commission public hearing is Dec 15 at 6:30pm in City Council chambers.
Categories: Local Government