Jim de Bree | City Election Issue Isn’t Gerrymandering

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

In its Oct. 27 edition, The Signal published a front-page article about the status of potentially pending litigation against the city of Santa Clarita that seeks to force the city to move from at-large voting for City Council members to by-district voting.  

The California Voting Rights Act allows citizens and attorneys to challenge at-large voting (where every voter votes for city council members who serve the entire city) when minority groups or other protected classes of citizens are denied a voice in local elections because their votes are diluted.  

As The Signal has previously reported, four of the five City Council members reside in close proximity to each other. Many residents have expressed concerns that their neighborhood is over-represented. Consequently, this makes the city vulnerable to a CVRA challenge. 

Several local school districts and our local water district have already adopted by-district voting in response to actual or potential CVRA disputes.  

The Oct. 27 article, in part, states: “After the [Oct. 26 City Council] meeting, Mayor Bill Miranda made arguments against the by-district voting system, saying that at-large voting allows individual residents to vote for five council members as opposed to just one. He also stated he does not see how gerrymandering toward a particular group would be beneficial for everyone.” 

By introducing the gerrymandering concept, Mr. Miranda equivocates the at-large vs. by-district issue raised under the CVRA. Gerrymandering is generally defined as a practice intended to establish an arguably unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating the boundaries of existing electoral districts. The issue at hand is not the manipulation of boundaries of electoral districts, but rather is whether separate electoral districts should replace an at-large system.  

When a city or other municipal district converts to a by-district voting regime, the district boundaries must be drawn within CVRA guidelines and generally must have court approval if litigation is involved in process. The CVRA guidelines contain several objective criteria that are designed to prevent the manipulation of district boundaries commonly referred to as gerrymandering.  

The objective criteria for each district include: 

Population equality: Each district must have the same number of residents based on census data. 

Community of interest: Each district must be composed of people who have a shared interest, view or characteristics. 

Geographically, each district must be compact and contiguous. 

The districts must have visible (natural and manmade) boundaries. 

Past voter selections must be respected. 

The overall district plan must anticipate the impact of future growth. 

Professional demographers must be employed to ensure adherence to such criteria and local hearings are required to ensure that the public has an opportunity to express its concerns about the process and the resulting districts. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Miranda’s comment using the term gerrymandering is an apparent effort to distort the process and discredit the effort to move from at-large to by-district voting. Ironically, since four of the five City Council members reside in the same area, the current at-large voting process has the same effect as gerrymandering because it results in their neighborhood having a perceived unfair political advantage over the remainder of the city.  

Consider two endeavors funded by the city that disproportionately benefit the area in which those council members reside. The first is the Laemmle Newhall theater subsidy and the second is the acquisition of the ice skating rink near Valencia High School. Both represent substantial city subsidies of business enterprises that are funded by all the taxpayers of Santa Clarita.  

Presumably, most other local districts have responded to CVRA challenges either because they agreed with the merits of switching to by-district voting or because the cost of opposition was too great. The city has been fighting this battle for many years, but the cost of continuing the ongoing controversy has not been publicly disclosed. One has to wonder why the city has failed to be transparent about the amount of cumulative costs incurred to sustain a system that most other cities have abandoned. Would cost awareness cause taxpayers to become concerned about the cost-effectiveness of perpetuating the at-large regime? 

Perhaps the opacity surrounding costs has more to do with the desire of City Council members to perpetuate their terms in office by maintaining the status quo because re-electing multiple members who reside in the same district becomes impossible in a by-district election format. 

The issue certainly is not about avoiding gerrymandering. 

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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