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San Diego Redistricting Process Limps to a Close (text)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Sunday, Sep. 02, 2001 at 7:30 PM
mgconlan@earthlink.net (619) 688-1886 P.O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

San Diego's Redistricting Commission finally approved a map for new City Council districts August 22 — but only because Commission chair Ralph Pesqueira reluctantly broke a deadlock and cast a deciding fifth vote for a plan that puts the Sea World amusement park in environmentalist Councilmember Donna Frye's district.

errorSan Diego Redistricting Process Limps to a Close
Commission Finally Reluctantly Accepts Map that Puts Sea World in District 6

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright 2001 by Zengers Newsmagazine Used by permission

After a five-hour meeting during which San Diegos City Council Redistricting Commission heard three hours of public testimony and spent the next two hours debating the issue themselves, the Commission finally approved a map for new City Council districts August 22 in time for the 2002 Council elections. But the Commission remained tightly divided, 4 to 3, over whether to put the Sea World amusement park in pro-development Republican Byron Wears District 2 or environmentalist Democrat Donna Fryes District 6. Only a last-minute vote change by Commission chair Ralph Pesqueira, who opposed putting Sea World in Fryes district but went along with it for the greater good of moving the map forward, allowed the Commission to reach the needed five-vote super-majority for the final plan.

The Commission made a few minor adjustments to the map in response to the community input. They turned down a request from Father Joe Carroll, head of the St. Vincent de Paul mission serving homeless people, to keep his facility in the downtown District 2 instead of moving it to the largely Latino south-city District 8. But they made other adjustments that kept the condominium buildings on the east shore of Crown Point (the peninsula that divides the ocean beaches from Mission Bay) and the homes of residents involved in maintaining a controversial set of ballfields in north Mission Bay in District 2 instead of moving them to District 6.

However, the Sea World issue remained highly divisive. The four Commissioners who had supported moving it from Wears district into Fryes in the first place Leland Sato, Mateo Camarillo, Juan Ulloa and Charles Johnson remained committed to doing so, while the opponents, Commissioners Shirley Odell and Marichu Magaa, were equally implacable. Eventually Magaa abstained from the final plan, while Odell voted against it after issuing a stinging statement saying that putting Sea World in Fryes district would be illegal.

Citing the plans extensive use of the phrase communities of interest to justify its movements of certain populations from one district to another, Odell said, We have sometimes defined the term communities of interest in different ways. But its not the definition that concerns me; its how its been used in our process. We have expanded its use and used communities of interest as a tool to allow us to provide things we cannot provide.

Odell said that including Sea World in District 6 reduced the compactness of the map for purely political reasons, and illegally violated the freedom of action of the City Council to make land-use decisions. I have to choose between going along and breaking the law, and I cannot go along with something that I think is breaking the law, Odell said.

Commissioner Ulloa then asked the Commissions legal advisor, deputy city attorney Lisa Foster, if there were in fact any legal problems with putting Sea World in District 6. I consider breaking the law a strong statement, Foster replied. I havent seen any alternative on Mission Bay that would involve breaking the law. She assured the Commissioners that they could make any decision they wanted on Sea World and they would still be within their discretion under the city charter.

It was surprising that the Commissions biggest confrontation came over Sea World when it has no residents. Redistricting is supposed to be about people. Under federal law, the size of each district must be determined through U.S. Census data for the entire population of San Diego in 2000. The eight City Council districts must each contain an equal number of registered voters, within a five percent tolerance figure for each individual district and a 10 percent tolerance for the entire map.

The districts also had to be drawn in such a way that they did not unduly dilute the strength of racial and ethnic minorities protected under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This requirement had triggered an earlier controversy between activists of color who wanted the Commission to create a third district in City Heights with a majority of people of color, and Queer activists and City Heights neighborhood organizers who wanted to keep the areas of the city with the highest Queer populations in District 3, and the City Heights neighborhoods split between three Council districts to improve their ability to access city redevelopment funding.

Though the Commission had earlier voted 6-0 (at a meeting where Johnson was absent) to draw District 3 along the lines requested by the City Heights activists and the Queer community, various Commission members said August 22 that they hadnt given up hope of reuniting City Heights even if that meant splitting the Queer populations. They said they would reopen the issue if the Commission minority remained intransigent on Sea World.

At the very beginning, I stated for the record that this whole process was about people and numbers, Johnson said. One person, one vote, according to the Constitution; balancing each district according to the latest census numbers; and protecting African-Americans, Latinos and communities of other languages. We have done that.

Camarillo particularly attacked Odells comment that the Commission had let issues of race and politics unfairly affect their deliberations. The Constitution requires that we consider and take into account ethnicity to determine whether voting strength is being enhanced or diluted, he said. It cannot be the sole criterion, but it must be taken into account. What do you think redistricting is, if not redrawing political boundary lines? We cannot avoid political or economic considerations. Social factors that affect voting participation are impacted by economic considerations.

Id like to think that for most Commissioners District 6 is one of the most compact districts we have, Ulloa said. By the testimony, and the fact of how this map looks, District 6 is extremely compact relative to all the districts. The majority of the public testimony, about 90 percent, has said they like the map as it is. When we were in City Heights I had my own ideas and kept looking for rationales to ignore that testimony. I couldnt, and I would hope five Commissioners would look at the testimony and vote according to the expressed will of the people.

Commission chair Pesqueira said he felt the two main reasons supporters of putting Sea World in District 6 cited the desire to control Sea Worlds expansion plans and to protect the residents of the DeAnza Cove trailer park (most of them senior citizens) from eviction when their current lease with the city runs out in 2003 were superfluous because the City Council had already decided against them on both issues. The Council has already approved Sea Worlds expansion on an 8-1 vote (District 6 Councilmember Frye was the only dissenter) and contracted with a private developer to build a hotel on the DeAnza site once the lease expires. It is a Council vote, and the Council has already spoken that they are going to let Sea World build out, he said.

Nonetheless, Pesqueira agreed to go along with the majority and give the final map the crucial fifth vote it needed. I feel whats more important here is that this map be moved on, he said. I still would like all of us to have this map finished and finalized in time for the County Registrar of Voters to certify it so City Council candidates in Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8 can run in the new districts in March 2002. Without action today, it will not be in effect for two more years, so I am going to vote with the majority so the city can have its say and people can decide whether they want to respond with a lawsuit or a referendum. If there is a referendum petition filed, we will have ten days to review it and maybe that will change some minds.

The work of the Redistricting Commission is not done yet. They have scheduled their next meeting for Wednesday, September 5, 4 p.m. at the City Council chambers, 202 C Street downtown, at which time they will discuss and write their official justifications for the changes they made in the Council districts. The map will go before the public for a 30-day review process and changes could still be made as a result. Under the city charter, the Redistricting Commissions decisions on Council district boundaries are final unless a referendum is filed in which case petitions would be circulated and if enough people signed them, the plan would go on the ballot for an up-or-down vote of the people or unless someone files a lawsuit against it and successfully challenges it in court.
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