Meeting Set For Tuesday on Transitioning to District Elections
After weeks of speculation following the release of a letter from Matt Rexroad on behalf of at least two clients, the city council will finally get a chance to publicly weigh in on the decision of whether to transition from an at-large to a district-based council election system.
However, in addition to making the decision to transition to a new election system which would include a tentative schedule for the process, the city manager has also recommended that the council approve a contract with a demographer to assist with legal requirements to develop proposed boundaries for district elections.
It is here that the city has run into a problem with the proposed demography company.
According to the staff report, staff in conjunction with the city attorney “have researched and reached out to several potential demographers and recommend contracting with National Demographics Corporation (NDC) for demographic services.”
They note, “NDC has extensive experience with cities transitioning to district-based elections under the CVRA, and staff has confirmed their availability to attend the formal public hearings. They can provide the services that Davis needs within the City Manager’s authority to execute a contract.”
The demographer is needed in order “to comply with the requirements outlined in state law and to appropriately draw district boundaries,” They can address questions and provide statistics to assist in drawing proposed maps.
But the Vanguard quickly found a problem with NDC.
In a story from WRAL in North Carolina from two weeks ago, a judge threw out much of the testimony of an expert who was brought in by Republican lawmakers. That testimony was from Douglas Johnson, the founder and president of National Demographics Corp.
Mr. Johnson testified that his analysis showed a 36 percent difference between the Common Cause maps and the ones adopted by lawmakers. But those numbers were challenged by the Common Cause attorney who argued that Mr. Johnson failed to include close to a dozen House districts in his analysis.
In a critical exchange, Daniel Jacobson, the Common Cause attorney, asked him, “Those numbers are completely wrong, right?”
“They apparently mismeasured the degree of the change. They don’t change the fact that there is significant change between the maps,” Mr. Johnson replied. “Whether it’s 36 percent or, if I was off by half, it’s still 18 percent. It’s still one in five residents who were moved between the two maps.”
“Sitting here today, you cannot tell the court that your numbers are correct, right?”
“I can tell the court that the basic idea is still true, that there is a significant population moved,” Johnson said.
“I just want to be very clear. Sitting here today, you concede those numbers were wrong.”
“Those exact numbers appear to be wrong. I would need to double-check that.”
“Sitting here today, you have no idea what the correct numbers are.”
“I know they’re somewhere between 36 [percent] and probably half that.”
“When you say half that, you’re just speculating, right?”
“No,” Mr. Johnson said. “The 36 percent is the average change in each of the districts. So if there are, as you say, 10 or 12 districts added to that, those numbers are going to swing that relative to shifting the average for all of the districts. It would make it smaller, but at most, you would cut it in half, and you’d still be at one in five people moved from the Hofeller plan and the enacted plan.”
But the judges were not convinced. Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said that “his opinions must be the product of reliable methods and principles … and the principles used by Dr. Johnson were not reliable.”
According to a story in The News and Observer from July 25, the three-judge panel agreed to strike portions of Mr. Johnson’s testimony.
The newspaper reports that Mr. Johnson “admitted to several errors under cross-examination.”
When challenged, however, his contention was, “It would have been a change in degrees, but not a change in conclusion.”
Ultimately, however, the judge agreed with Mr. Jacobson’s charges and struck all of the key testimony comparing the maps.
Where that will ultimately leave Davis is anyone’s guess. The city was unaware of the issue when they made a recommendation and it did not come up in reference checks with other cities.
One councilmember noted that it appears that NDC is the main major company that cities hire for doing this kind of demography.
An official indicated that at this point the city is not committed to any firm and may now look further to see what their range of options are.
But the downside is that “not many firms do this for cities, let alone (are) available in short order.”
On the other hand, in the case of North Carolina, someone was able to call them on methodology and that ability to do so may not exist in Davis.
Meanwhile, on the main point, staff is recommending the transition, noting, “While the City’s current and past councils have included members of minority groups, the threshold required for showing a violation of the CVRA is low. Should the City Council decide not to pursue a transition to district-based elections, the costs to defend the City in court are high, likely reaching into the millions of dollars in legal fees, and the likelihood of the City prevailing is low.”
If they decide to proceed, the city has 30 days to hold at least two public hearings, 45 days to pass a Resolution of Intent to Transition to District Elections and after that resolution is passed, 90 days to hold a series of five public hearings.
In the schedule mapped out by council, most of the outreaches would be on Tuesday nights during council meeting times, with a couple of outside events. The first public hearing would be August 27 and the second September 3.
The council would also need to decide how to create the districts, how they will select the mayor, the sequence of the elections and the timing of the elections.
—David M. Greenwald reporting