Tasked with the once-in-a-decade challenge of redrawing district lines in San Jose, city leaders are pushing to engage residents in the process.
The conversation is important because redistricting could affect how residents, especially people of color, are represented in future elections.
Every 10 years, after the U.S. Census is complete, the city must appoint one San Josean from each council district to a commission that will help determine where district boundaries should lie. Redrawing of council districts could have a profound impact on each neighborhood’s political power and its ability to receive equitable services and resources from City Hall.
“For the first time, half the council represents communities that have been under-resourced and underrepresented so you get very feisty conversations right now about about issues that are really meaningful, and issues that impact our our residents on a daily basis,” Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said.
Applications for the redistricting commission could open up as soon as Oct. 27 but lawmakers are split on how to accept applications and feedback from commissioners.
City Clerk Toni Taber said applications for the 11-member redistricting commission would come to her office but Mayor Sam Liccardo proposed a more public application process based on recommendations from California Common Cause, a nationwide political advocacy organization.
Under his proposal, the council would adopt California Common Causes’s recommendations, including a ban on ex parte communications by comission members. In other words, there can be no private communications between comission members and potential benefactors.
Liccardo also is calling for asking voters in 2022 to approve permanent changes to the city’s redistricting process through a city charter amendment. The charter change would model San Jose’s redistricting commission rules after other cities, such as Long Beach and Sacramento.
“San Jose can do more to ensure its redistricting commission is independent, fair, diverse, transparent and filled with qualified commissioners,” Liccardo says.
Liccardo’s proposal alarmed five of his council colleagues who said the mayor is suggesting too many changes to the redistricting process too quickly and without sufficient community input — a move reminiscent of his “strong mayor” push, according to Councilmember Maya Esparza.
“It just took us all by surprise. The election is a week and a half away so it feels wrong to rush this process,” Esparza told San José Spotlight. “We can make it right by having a community driven process.”
The council voted unanimously in July to establish a charter review commission to better engage residents in conversation about changes to the city charter, which governs how San Jose operates. Proposing a charter change now undermines the goal of receiving input from the new commission, according to a letter from community leaders.
Furthermore, an ex parte ban would require all feedback to be collected at public hearings or via letters published online, which doesn’t create a fair environment as the mayor intended, according to a memo from Esparza and councilmembers Carrasco, Raul Peralez, Sylvia Arenas and Sergio Jimenez.
Carrasco said the ban could make it more difficult for commissioners to obtain feedback from residents who lack access to technology and are unable to attend public meetings. Not being able to have outside conversations would limit the commissioners’ ability to understand the concerns of different neighborhoods, she said.
An ex parte ban is used by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission and other cities but the councilmembers called these commissions “deeply flawed.”
“The California Citizens Redistricting Commission has suffered from a significant underrepresentation of Latinos, with only 21.4% in 2010 and 28.6% in 2020, despite Latinos making up nearly 40% of the state’s population,” Carrasco, Jimenez, Esparza, Peralez and Arenas wrote in their memo.
Long Beach’s redistricting application process produced 29 Latino applicants out of 159 total applicants. The city comprises a more than 40% Latino population. If the application process currently lacks diversity, barring communication further stifles unique voices from entering the discussion, according to Carrasco.
“When you have ex parte, it’s usually the communities of color that get the short end of the stick,” Carrasco said.
Working Partnerships USA and other advocacy groups wrote a letter to the council expressing similar concerns.
“We want to make sure that communities of color and community groups have the ability to engage in dialogue about a very important and quite complicated issue about how these lines are drawn,” Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy for Working Partnerships, told San José Spotlight. “It requires more of a conversation than you can have in a two-minute sound bite at public comment.”
Not all elements of the mayor’s proposal should be scrapped, according to Buchanan. For example, Liccardo suggested putting commissioner applications, including resumes and responses to short answer questions, on a website for the public to view and comment.
“Anything we can do to make it more accessible to the community to be able to apply to this commission is positive,” Buchanan said.
Applications will be accepted until Dec. 13. Councilmembers will have until Dec. 31 to nominate commissioners.
Esparza, Carrasco, Peralez, Arenas and Jimenez urged the council to run any changes to the redistricting commission process by the city’s Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices, a five-member commission that reviews election laws and ethics complaints.
“Why don’t we get input from residents themselves? We have time for these things. Democracy is worth taking some time for,” Esparza said.
The City Council must make its appointments to the commission no later than Oct. 31, 2021. But San Jose’s Measure G, if passed by voters Nov. 3, could allow the council to extend this deadline if the census results — expected to arrive in 2021 — come in late.
The rules from the past two redistricting recommendations apply: District sizes should be more or less equal in number, ethnic groups should not be over concentrated in one area, school districts shouldn’t be split up, gerrymandering should be avoided, incomes should be diverse, neighborhoods and their associations should be kept together.
“These lines are going to impact communities for the next 10 years,” Carrasco said. “It is one of the biggest events that happens in a city and it’s one of the biggest events that happens next to the census.”
The council will discuss the redistricting commission proposals at its Oct. 27 meeting that begins at 1:30 p.m. To watch, visit the San Jose YouTube page.
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Derecka Mehrens, the executive director of Working Partnerships USA, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.