Menlo Park’s next voting limits, which are expected to last until 2030, will be decided by an unelected commission with no oversight or input from city council, in a decision made by council following a tense discussion.
Menlo Park City Council split 3-2, with Mayor Drew Combs and City Councilor Ray Mueller opposing a move to create an independent redistribution commission to redraw the boundaries of the city’s five city council districts on the database for new data from the 2020 U.S. Census.
The newly created Menlo Park Independent Constituency Commission will be made up of seven commissioners and two alternates and will need to hold at least four public hearings throughout its process to establish updated voting limits.
They will be solely responsible for the development of the new electoral constituencies; a majority of city council members voted to have no authority or oversight of the commission.
The council’s split decision, at the grassroots, highlighted the divergent opinions of council members on who should ultimately be responsible for the onerous task of shaping residents’ voting opportunities.
Mueller and Combs, in the minority, were in favor of maintaining this privilege with elected officials. Mueller said he believed it was the role of elected officials to be responsible for protecting residents’ voting rights, and that city council was up to the task.
“I really believe the people of Menlo Park expect the elected officials in whom they put their faith and trust (that the council) to maintain some… minimum level of oversight in case something goes wrong. I think so. that this council would hold this to a very high bar and not act unless it was absolutely necessary, ”he said.
With the independent system, he argued, there is a theoretical worst-case scenario in which, for example, a majority of members hold a grudge against a board member and might go out of their way to “draw a strange map”, Mueller said. “It shouldn’t shape people’s voting rights.”
“I see it as empowering a randomly selected organization to deny members of our community the right to vote,” Combs said.
Combs added that he opposed the idea that the fact that elected officials retain some authority in the redistribution process would affect the impartiality of the result.
“All important decisions are made by elected officials; their ability to make these decisions comes from their election, ”Combs said, adding that the participation of elected officials would legitimize the process, he said.
Councilor Jen Wolosin, who voted for the independent commission, said: “It is not about elected officials, but voters.” She also preferred to reduce the residency requirement to one year instead of the recommended three, but did not gain support from other board members.
Menlo Park went from general representation to district representation in 2018 after a threat of lawsuits alleged the city’s electoral system violated state law because Latino and black residents of the neighborhood of Belle Haven did not have fair representation on city council.
During the initial constituency demarcation process in 2018, an eight-week advisory commission developed a series of maps dividing the city into five current districts, which the city council adopted.
At the time, council members expressed an interest in having the redistribution to an independent commission in the future. Council members are affected by the results of the redistribution, as those limits can shape their chances of re-election, supporters of the independent commission approach said at the time. They argued that removing the board’s power to change the board’s map would prevent board members from interfering with the redistribution process to their benefit.
There are other legal checks and balances against gerrymandering, according to Jesus Garcia, a demographer at GEOinovo Solutions Inc., the consultancy company the city hired to provide demographic analysis and census mapping services in order to keep it alive. help in its redistribution process.
The new district map developed by the independent commission will still have to comply with fair voting laws, and anyone can challenge the fairness and validity of the map, he said.
“If it’s a bad card, it’s a bad card. It can and probably will be called into question in the future,” Garcia said.
Candidates for the Commission must be at least 18 years old and have lived in Menlo Park for at least three years. They will have to agree to abide by the Brown Act, the Public Records Act and the Political Reform Act, and not sit on city council for at least five years after serving on the commission.
For at least four years, they will also have to agree not to participate or contribute to any city council campaign and not to enter into a contract with the city unless it is part of a tendering process, according to Deputy City Attorney Denise Bazzano.
The Registrar will randomly choose the first three Commissioners from among the candidates. These three commissioners will choose, with a majority vote, the other four commissioners and two alternates from the remaining candidates, Bazzano said. These two selection processes will take place in public meetings, she added.
One outcome of the seemingly inevitable redistribution is that, for all households that suddenly find themselves in a new district, it is likely that the next election for which they will be allowed to vote will be in two or six years, rather than the traditional four years.
This is because of the staggered electoral system, which requires three members of city council and two members of city council to be eligible in alternating even years. Districts 1, 2 and 4 will be elected in 2022, while Districts 3 and 5 will not be elected until 2024.
For example, if a boundary were to move from District 3 to District 2, some former residents of District 2, suddenly part of District 3, would not be able to vote until 2024 even though the last election they would have participated in would have been in. 2018.
The potential delaying effect of moving the boundaries would also apply to elected officials. If an elected official lives in an area where the district boundaries have changed, he or she would be allowed to serve the remainder of the term, but then would have to wait until the next time the new district headquarters are elected, Bazzano said. .
Combs has expressed interest in synchronizing electoral cycles so that all five city council members are elected at the same time, but the rule of dividing the number of council members for re-election into alternating two-year cycles is a law codified in the constitution of the city. , according to Bazzano.
Combs called the fact that someone might have to wait six years before they can vote in local elections “a flaw in the process.”
“I would say it is a deprivation of the right to vote,” he said.
The city is required to complete the redistribution process by April 17, 2022, according to a staff report.
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]