After hours of heated debate, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously to create a more transparent redistricting process based on recommendations from California Common Cause, a statewide political advocacy group.
Under the plan approved Oct. 28, all San Jose residents can apply to the redistricting commission through a public process where residents can comment on each application. No private meetings about redistricting between commissioners and individuals will be allowed.
Mayor Sam Liccardo also proposed eliminating conflicts of interest — such as prohibiting the appointment of an elected official’s family members or employees — and ensuring diversity on the commission.
Every decade following the U.S. Census count, the city must redraw district lines and appoint an 11-member commission to help guide the decision.
But historically a lack of transparency and backroom conversations have posed a threat to district representation in cities throughout the state.
“If you look across California, there are plenty of cities and counties where the lines really do look gerrymandered,” said Jonathan Stein from California Common Cause. “They’re long, skinny, squiggly districts that were very clearly drawn to keep somebody in power.”
Advocates are fighting to ensure equitable representation for San Jose’s most vulnerable neighborhoods and worry about how redrawing district lines could reduce the political power of some districts.
Liccardo and members of the Latino caucus—a faction of the council consisting of councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco, Maya Esparza, Sergio Jimenez, Sylvia Arenas and Raul Peralez— agreed that process should be as fair and accessible as possible for San Jose, but clashed after Liccardo a suggested a ban on private communications between commissioners and residents, as recommended by California Common Cause.
Liccardo also proposed a ballot measure in 2022 to permanently change San Jose’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process just days before the election — which was not approved by the council. The Latino caucus criticized Liccardo for rushing the conversation and failing to gather more community input on how residents should engage with the commission.
For Liccardo, it was a matter of timing.
“We have to follow the schedule the charter sets,” Liccardo said. “We can have as much public comment and input as we want, but we still have to make a decision set by the charter.”
Commissioners must be appointed by January.
“What I saw missing was community engagement,” Arenas said.
Arenas and the rest of the Latino caucus said the council should take its time with a decision that will affect San Jose residents—especially communities of color—10 years down the line.
They proposed reviewing Liccardo’s plan with the city’s Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices. The push was ultimately denied.
But most of their suggestions were approved, including increasing community participation with “historically underrepresented communities” by holding meetings in every council district, including in Spanish and Vietnamese, and providing child care for people who attend in person.
The council received dozens of letters, including from Assemblymembers Ash Kalra and Kansen Chu, urging lawmakers not to adopt Liccardo’s communications ban because it would silence the voices” of communities of color by banning community outreach and engagement by redistricting commissioners.
“By sheltering the commissioners from any community feedback outside of official meetings with limited public comment, we will not be allowing them to make decisions with comprehensive representative feedback from our diverse community,” Kalra wrote in his letter.
Liccardo said the goal of the ban wasn’t to silence voices, but to increase transparency.
The ban means commission members and staff may not communicate with or receive communications about redistricting issues from anyone outside of a public hearing, a memo from Liccardo said. Ultimately, the council approved the communications ban, but will allow organizations or individuals to meet with the commission any time or place, as long as the meeting was publicized to all residents in advance.
Similar bans have been adopted in other large cities, such as Long Beach and Sacramento, in an effort to increase transparency and ban backdoor dealings.
The bans follow a 2012 incident in Los Angeles, where council president Herb Wesson was accused of diluting Black votes after having private conversations about redistricting.
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.