Three years ago, California voters decided it was too dangerous to let politicians carve up their own political districts. Backroom deals resulted in too few competitive elections, too many safe seats, and too much power in the hands of people who weren’t putting their constituents first.
So to take as much politics as possible out of redistricting, a citizen commission was created to redraw Congress, Assembly and state Senate boundaries in 2011.
That didn’t stop the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors from deciding two of its own members should lead the way when it comes to drawing the district boundaries for that elected body.
Now, on the eve of what is likely the approval of the new borders, it’s a decision at least one supervisor has come to question.
“The San Joaquin County redistricting issue really bothers me,” said Leroy Ornellas, who now represents Tracy, Mountain House and part of Manteca. “The process … and end results are of great concern to me.”
In March, Ornellas and his fellow board members agreed Supervisors Larry Rhustaller and Ken Vogel, along with county staff, would draw up new districts that adhere to certain standards — no supervisor drawn out of his current district; equal population distribution; communities of interest kept together; a Latino majority maintained in District 1, as required by the Voting Rights Act.
Since Vogel and Rhustaller can’t seek re-election thanks to term limits, they seemed ideal impartial arbiters for this crucial task.
But it appears politics played a role all the same, as the last few months suggest district boundaries have been drawn not for the best public benefit, but to serve the officials who will vote in favor of or against the lines.
And those boundaries could be headed for passage Tuesday, Aug. 2.
How we got here
Earlier in 2011, the first draft of boundaries from Rhustaller, Vogel and county staff was submitted to the full board of supes, along with a map from a group calling itself “Whole City,” an ad hoc organization formed to end the habitual practice of splitting Manteca between two different districts.
Two public meetings were conducted in the following days, seeking input on both proposals.
But when the supervisors’ July 12 meeting rolled around, it was a never-before-revealed set of boundaries that ended up before elected officials. And, yes, it split Manteca. Not into two districts, but into three.
“Maybe we just should have kept our mouths shut,” joked Manteca Mayor Willie Weatherford, one of Whole City’s vocal advocates.
And despite Ripon’s pleas to the contrary, the map also cut that city out of the 5th District, which it now shares with Tracy and Mountain House. That’s a shame, considering Ripon has far more in common with our south-county bergs and agriculture than it does with new district-mates Lodi, Lockeford and Thornton.
No matter. Map Johnny-come-lately was endorsed 4-1, launching it toward Tuesday’s meeting and possible final approval. Ornellas was the lone dissenter.
He said his opposition wasn’t for his benefit, but the legitimacy of the five districts going forward and the next round of supervisors to represent the county.
“It’s not for me. I’m gone in a year and a half,” said Ornellas, who is termed out in 2012. “I’m looking at the next 10 years.”
The story surrounding the process should disturb proponents of open government.
Reportedly, the map’s current incarnation was distributed last-minute on July 12 after alterations were made by unknown persons within the county. Sources say it’s likely that elected officials were responsible for the behind-the-scenes changes.
No comment was forthcoming from county administrative officer Manuel Lopez, Rhustaller or Vogel.
Messages seeking to talk about redistricting were left with the county for all three late in the morning of Wednesday, July 27. No response was received as of press time Thursday afternoon.
While the exact circumstances surrounding the changes aren’t known, what’s certain is that the map shown at the July 12 meeting was not one of the two presented to the public purely for comment.
And word has it there have been even more changes made since the July 12 meeting, away from the pesky eyes of the public.
That means the precise boundaries, which impact more than 600,000 people, will only be available to public scrutiny once.
That’s a far cry from what’s going on just to our south, where Stanislaus County enlisted 11 citizens for a commission to redraw supervisorial districts.
A model to follow
With guidance from Stanislaus County administrators, the group there has shown several district configurations to the public multiple times, according to Sharon Silva, chair of the commission and president of the Turlock Chamber of Commerce.
No less than seven feedback meetings were hosted to kick off the process, she said. And after the best boundary options were drawn, they were sent out to the public once again. Those comments have informed creation of a final draft.
Silva said that final version will be seen by Stanislaus supervisors — and be subject to public scrutiny — at least twice.
All this after regular citizens, not elected officials, drew up the boundaries. A paragon of good government, at least when it comes to the step-by-step.
“The county and the supervisors really wanted this to be the people’s, to have the input of the communities,” Silva said. “We realize the importance of keeping the communities of interest intact, to make sure people’s needs are met.”
San Joaquin County supervisors should take a cue from their counterparts to the south this coming Tuesday and seek more input regarding the drafted district boundaries, rather than rushing the current closed-door set into law.
In fact, it’s imperative for the integrity of the process.
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Correction: This column originally misidentified Supervisor Larry Rhustaller.