CHICO — Tuesday saw the Chico City Council’s first meeting of the new year, but there were no fresh starts for the council as the returning issue of establishing district elections dominated the evening’s discussion.
Since releasing the draft maps on Dec. 23, the city is required by law to hold an additional two public hearings on the six proposed district maps. Tuesday’s meeting was the first of those public hearings, but the fourth public hearing on the issue overall.
The draft maps show the possible configuration of voting districts, a process the city is undertaking as mandated by a threatened lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act.
The Butte County Republicans issued a press release on Tuesday accusing the liberal majority council of gerrymandering the maps to place councilors in separate districts. Chair Saulo Londono called the maps: “the most cynical and transparently corrupt gerrymandering process I’ve ever seen.”
At the City Council meeting of Dec. 10, the councilors directed city demographer Michael Wagaman on its top priorities for drawing the maps. Councilors said they wanted to see the draft maps follow established neighborhoods and normal demarcation points like geographical features, highways and major roads. The council also said at that time that maintaining incumbency was last among their priorities.
However, many speakers Tuesday evening felt that Wagaman had given too much attention to the incumbency of the councilors and not enough to the spirit of the California Voting Rights Act that requires this process.
“It’s one thing to say something should be the last thing considered, but when you put nothing ahead of it in the priority list, last is the same thing as second,” said Nathaniel Perry during the public comment period. “It seems that incumbency has been very well protected.”
Mark Stemen, a geography professor at Chico State, said he found it “an interesting academic task to review and compare the six different versions,” and that he felt the Purple map did the best job of keeping communities together. He asked the city to consider recognizing Big Chico Creek as a natural boundary, as the county did, when drawing district lines.
“One of the things we did not consider whatsoever is who is on the council because we were making decisions for the city, not for yourselves,” said Stephen Breedlove, who worked with a group to present two, publicly submitted maps — titled Goldstein 1 and Goldstein 2.
“The spirit of the CVRA is to democratize the city,” Breedlove said. “You can still fix this with any of these maps.”
Bryce Goldstein, who worked with Breedlove and others on the eponymous maps, said that she also felt the demographer’s maps seemed “to favor incumbency over the boundaries people had hoped to see” and that maintaining diversity was important.
Overall, of all the preferences stated by public speakers, the Yellow, Green and Purple maps were most favored.
Wagaman, when presenting to the council, said that he had never presented a first draft map to a city that was perfect, and he expected the council to have suggestions and changes to make.
“There will be things I got right and there will most certainly be things I got wrong,” he told the council. Wagaman said he even went so far as to wear only monochrome colors on Tuesday evening, so as not to subconsciously steer the council toward any map in particular. He broke down the highlights of each map and why district lines had been placed in each draft.
Wagaman said all of the maps were roughly balanced in population, and took into account the sometimes oddly-shaped census blocks that are required by federal and state law.
“Council has given direction (and) the public has given direction,” Wagaman said. He also clarified that he has not met with the councilors outside of any public meetings.
Wagaman also directly addressed the concerns of considering incumbency, and said that he always collects the information of incumbent addresses but did not consider that information until long after the lines had already been drawn.
“Only at that stage did I turn on the locators to see where (councilors) are,” Wagaman said. “A council member being next to a district line does not mean that district was drawn for that council member.”
He said there was a “legitimate discussion the council can and should have” about whether or not he appropriately followed the council’s directions regarding incumbency, but added that it was “sometimes rhetorically convenient to use the word ‘gerrymander” in any draft map plan that is unpopular.
Wagaman disclosed for the first time publicly that he does work with Democratic candidates in Sacramento, but added that he has been working as a demographer for much longer.
Councilor Sean Morgan pointed out that in four of the six draft maps, Mayor Randall Stone is placed in a primarily Democratic majority district, and that Morgan, as well, was generally placed in a primarily conservative district.
“It’s hard to see that that is a coincidence,” Morgan said. “It’s hard to believe that incumbency wasn’t a priority — and I’m hearing that from both sides.”
Stone suggested that Morgan withdraw his prior vote in favor of hiring Wagaman. Assistant city attorney Andrew Jared said they sought out multiple proposals from demographers and received three, from which Wagaman’s company was chosen.
“To my way of thinking, a number of the maps do a pretty good job of keeping some very obvious neighborhoods together,” said Councilor Scott Huber. “I’m not seeing as many conspiracies here that we’ve been accused of.”
While Councilor Kasey Reynolds said she appreciated Wagaman’s work, she made a motion to suspend the whole process and find a new demographer with less obvious biases. Morgan seconded, but the motion failed 5-2.
Ultimately, the council gave Wagaman detailed instructions to move certain boundary lines: A variant of the Orange map to move where a district line crosses Big Chico Creek, a variant of the Green and Blue maps to change a district line crossing Highway 99, and a variant of the Purple map to change a district line at Pine St. and Big Chico Creek. The variant maps, as well as the original maps and the publicly submitted maps, will all be — and remain — available on the city’s website.
“This is inherently a tense process,” Wagaman said. And, good news for next year, when the city has to go through this process again: “Generally, redistricting, as opposed to districting, is a less complicated process,” he said. “Because you already have a map to start with.”
On its regular agenda, the council heard recommendations for the Internal Affairs Committee, including suggested modifications to the city’s noise ordinances and tenant protections.
Later in the evening, the council also held discussion at Stone’s request to consider a resolution supporting PG&E Electric Utility Customer Ownership.
The next City Council meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, in the City Council Chambers at 421 Main St. in Chico.