Once a decade, San Jose redraws its political boundaries in order to achieve a level playing field. The process aims to ensure the city’s 10 council districts have equal representation. It reviews whether minorities, businesses and neighborhoods are fairly aligned. It works to ensure that those who govern do so not just for the betterment of their constituents, but for the prosperity of the city as a whole.
This time around it became messy, heated and confusing. A late delivery of the census didn’t help either, but the San Jose Redistricting Commission had months to study the process, listen to public input and redraw the boundaries. Once the census figures arrived, commissioners could factor in public commentary with the data and apply their literacy on the subject.
They must’ve understood the importance of their role when each individual on the 11-member commission was appointed. They should have known that in a well-educated, highly vocal city like San Jose there would be strong community engagement. They should have questioned why the commission did not replace the sole Asian American commissioner, who dropped out in June, with another Asian American when Asians are the majority minority in San Jose.
Their lack of insight and inaction lead to the inevitable.
The process turned rocky and ended far from its intended outcome. The Commission Map created in collaboration with the commission’s consultant Redistricting Partners gave way to two additional maps—the Community Map and Unity Map—out of public frustration.
The Unity Map was created by civil rights, labor and community-based organizations who argued the Commission Map lacked fair representation. The Community Map was developed by Neighbors Keeping Communities Together, a group of neighborhood and business associations that feared becoming splintered into separate districts.
At that juncture, the Redistricting Commission could have taken a step back and reconsidered its work and amended the boundaries before submitting any map to the City Council. Instead, it voted to submit all three maps based on merit. Thus, passing the buck and burden to councilmembers.
The commission’s actions placed the City Council in a tenuous situation. With time running out and public emotions running high at a Nov. 30 meeting, councilmembers delayed approving any map. The situation was aggravated further by an impending Dec. 14 federal deadline to finalize the process. If San Jose failed to meet the due date, the courts would step in and redraw the boundaries.
With just seven days remaining, Councilmembers David Cohen and Magdalena Carrasco brought their own maps to the Dec. 7 meeting—further confusing and delaying an already complicated process—and now there were five.
Cohen showed how his map factored in realignments from the other three maps. At least he addressed some hot buttons such as keeping Japantown and Vendome in the same district. He did realign the District 10 and 2 borders from north-south to east-west. Yet Cohen’s map, dubbed the Council Map, appeared to be closer to a compromise than any other map, while still adhering to the Fair Maps Act, a federal law that prohibits partisan gerrymandering. The councilmembers will meet on Dec. 14, as of now, to finalize and approve the Council Map.
This last minute, Silicon Valley-style pivot should never have happened.
The Redistricting Commission began its work in February with ample time to give the City Council a final map. If one councilmember can come up with a solution in few days while after 10 months a Redistricting Commission cannot, perhaps we need to rethink how the Redistricting Commission charter is written and executed. Even Commissioner Fred Buzo acknowledges the system is flawed, pointing out that the commission is only required to provide a recommendation or report. They are not obligated to submit a map.
The good news is we have 10 years to figure it out.
Moryt Milo is San José Spotlight’s editorial advisor. She has more than 20 years of experience in Silicon Valley journalism, including roles as the editor for the Silicon Valley Business Journal and as a reporter and editor with the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. Follow Moryt at @morytmilo on Twitter and catch up on her monthly editorials here.