People are still debating over whether the city should challenge district elections.
Writes Al Sokolow: “To argue the hardly surprising generation that voters tend to favor candidates from their own racial/ethnic groups, as attorney Matt Rexroad does in his letter to the council, does not support the discrimination charge — especially since It lacks statistical significance and seems based primarily on national and state elections.”
The problem with this argument is that they don’t have to prove discrimination, only RPV (racially polarized voting). And it is an extremely low level claim – intentionally created as such by the state legislature.
Basically, the city attorney – versed on the law and case law – believes that the city will not win a challenge and that they will then have to expend millions. As we know from the city’s assessment of the “fiscal emergency,” the city lacks those kinds of resources.
Having made that decision unhappily but unanimously two weeks ago, we are now up to the details – which to many people is far more interesting anyway.
After exposing problems with the previous demographer in the North Carolina voting boundary debate, the city has quietly turned to Paul Mitchell and his Sacramento-based company Redistricting Partners to perform an analysis of the city’s population and demographics.
They will prepare draft districts based on CVRA (California Voting Rights Act) requirements as well as community input and ultimately council direction.
Mr. Mitchell will have a presentation this week.
We have already heard talk that current councilmembers could look to draw boundaries in such a way to avoid direct competition between incumbents – that would probably be both impractical and a mistake.
The staff report notes the following guiding principles for governance:
Make decisions in the best interests of the entire city.
Follow good governance principles.
Expect all councilmembers to be involved with all city issues, regardless of district.
Allocate resources based on the overall needs of the city.
Staff notes that a primary purpose of the first two public hearings is to provide feedback on “Communities of Interest” or COI. “A COI is any cohesive group of people that live in a geographically definable area and should be considered as a potential voting bloc in current or future elections,” staff writes.
Some of these are considered “protected classes” in that they have rights through state and federal civil rights laws.
Writes staff: “Some examples of protected classes in districting would be ethnic and racial minorities such as a concentration of Latino, Asian, or African American people. Protected classes can be described through public input, and there are federal databases that must be used wherever applicable to define these areas and make sure that they are not being harmed by the district boundaries.”
Three other key issues need to be addressed.
First is the selection of the mayor. The present system is that the individual with the highest number of votes in the previous election is mayor pro tem, and then in two years that individual becomes mayor.
Clearly, that must change. With district elections, the mayor can either be chosen at the will of the council or by rotating districts.
Staff notes: “Some cities have opted to divide into four districts and elect a mayor at-large. In the past, other plaintiffs’ attorneys have made the argument that an at-large mayor still constitutes an at-large system, however. The Council will need to provide direction on this early in the process, as it may affect the number of districts drawn.”
Contrary to the views expressed elsewhere, you can retain a weak mayoral system even with a directly elected mayor. For instance, in a system I am well familiar with, San Luis Obispo elected four councilmembers to four-year terms and a mayor to a two-year term. Each election year then, two councilmembers and the mayor are subject to the vote.
I am going to guess that the council will opt for a rotating system as they do with the board of supervisors and school board. In reality, the mayor really doesn’t have any real additional power other than running the meetings and working with the city manager on agendas.
The city can also decide how many districts it wants.
Staff writes: “There are currently five Council seats, the minimum required for a general law city. Absent any other changes, the City Council would need to vote on a map with five districts, however, there is no requirement to have five districts.”
Personally, I am torn a bit on this issue. I have seen a seven-member school district at work. It makes for a bit longer discussions. Also, three members can converse prior to meetings under the Brown Act.
The upside – easier to protect the existing incumbents (if that’s a consideration), easier to get a minority-majority district, and easier to get a student district (if we so want one).
My guess is we’ll keep it to five districts as that’s the standard and this remains a small community – but bear in mind, the time to change is really now. It will be much harder to shift once this is set up.
Finally, there is the sequence of elections.
Writes staff: “The Council will need to determine which districts will vote in which years, prior to the third public hearing, as this will be critical information for the public. Currently, three councilmembers are elected at one election and two councilmembers are elected at the next election, allowing for staggering of seats.”
My prediction is that we keep the same sequence, go to five members on the council and rotate the mayor.
I think if I had my preference we would go to a directly-elected mayor with six districts and try to create at least one student district and one district likely to have a person of low socioeconomic status/person of color.
—David M. Greenwald reporting