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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 19th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 7 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 7

District divisions: Santa Maria works to draw district maps for City Council elections as it abandons at-large voting

By DAVID MINSKY

Local residents, City Council members, nonprofit organizations, and a professional demographer have all contributed marked-up maps of Santa Maria for proposed City Council districts which will take effect later this year.

To recap: Local businessman Hector Sanchez and his attorney threatened the city with a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting if the city didn’t move toward creating district elections and leave behind the current at large voting method. The council voted 3-2 to begin the transition.


EQUAL REPRESENTATION
One of the two proposed district maps (out of five total) submitted by demographer Justin Levitt shows Santa Maria split into five districts instead of four.
MAP COURTESY OF THE CITY OF SANTA MARIA

Modeled off the landmark federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the CVRA signed into law in 2002 is intended to make it easier for minority groups to prove they were being disenfranchised by at-large systems. Modesto was the first city in California to face—and lose—a CVRA lawsuit, and there’s been a steady creep of similar litigation across the state ever since.

Now, Santa Maria is moving forward with a series of public meetings in various sectors of the city to hash out the geographic boundaries for each of the districts. With two public meetings already passed, the next one will be held on April 20 at 6 p.m. at the Edwards Community Center located at 809 Panther Drive.

At the last meeting, held at the Veterans Memorial Center on March 30, the City Council considered input from the public on how the districts should be composed. To help form the districts, the city hired demographer Justin Levitt from National Demographics Corporation, who was present at the meeting.

Much of the public comment was in favor of mapping out four district quadrants—one for each City Council member—and having an at-large mayor, with Broadway and Main serving as the separating lines for each quadrant. Sanchez and Hazel Davalos from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) endorsed these boundaries as a starting place, with room for adjustments.

“Clearly, Santa Maria residents intuitively think of the city broken up in these quadrants,” Davalos said at the March 30 meeting, adding that a map that doesn’t guarantee half of the districts would be composed of majority Latino voters wouldn’t be acceptable. “A majority of citizens of voting age population in Santa Maria are Latino.”

The composition of the City Council could even include an additional person, bringing it to five members.

Five draft maps from the demographer were posted to the city’s website on April 11, two of which map out five prospective districts. City residents and organizations have submitted 11 proposed district maps as well. CAUSE was the only community group to submit a five-district map.

The challenge is meeting the legal requirements for each district. By federal law, each district must contain a nearly equal population, and the lines can’t be drawn with race as the predominant factor. The boundaries must also comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

Optional considerations include having districts consist of as much contiguous territory as possible in a compact form, dividing them along visible natural and man-made geographical features, and keeping distinct communities intact.

“Historic neighborhoods like the Bungalow District and the Carriage District could remain together,” Davalos said.

Levitt said at the meeting that population numbers between the largest and smallest districts cannot exceed 10 percent of each other.

“In theory, if you had districts of 20,000 people, you could go up to about 21,000 per district or down to about 19,000,” he said. “The more people you have, the larger those margins become.”

Evenly distributing districts by population wasn’t the only deciding factor when considering the boundaries. City Planning Commission Chairman Robert Dickerson voiced concern for all districts to have a section in Santa Maria’s downtown in a March 23 letter to the city.

“I believe that whatever configuration the districts end up taking are, every district needs to have a foot in the downtown specific area,” Dickerson wrote. “In this way, all council members will have a reason for working together to maintain a vital downtown.”

Another issue Dickerson addressed, which also came up in the March 30 city staff report, is the potential contests between incumbents who reside in the same district, such as councilmembers Jack Boysen and Michael Moats, who reside in the same prospective district and whose terms expire in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

At least two districts will be created by June 1, according to City Attorney Gil Trujillo, since two seats will be up for re-election in 2018.

A formal plan must be adopted by the city before May 22 or Santa Maria could face a CVRA lawsuit.

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at dminsky@santamariasun.com.