City Council returns to the redistricting drawing boards

By John Geluardi, Daily Planet staff
Friday November 16, 2001

Now that the recently-approved redistricting plan has apparently been thwarted, the bitterly divided City Council will have to pick up the pieces and start the process again.  

If the bickering and backbiting that dominated a discussion about redistricting during last Tuesday’s council meeting is any indication, the process, which begins Nov. 27, will be contentious. 

The newly-formed Citizens for Fair Representation collected more than 8,000 signatures to challenge the controversial plan – approved by council on Oct. 16 – mainly because the plan included a population imbalance in District 8.  

The newly-drawn District 8 has 4,500 more residents than the city’s seven other districts, which have an average of 12,800 residents. CFR members have charged that the imbalance violates the democratic tenet “one person, one vote.” 

Assuming 4,000 of the signatures on the petitions are validated, the council will have two choices. It can allow the issue to go before the voters in March or it can repeal the approved redistricting plan and start over.  

Several councilmembers have already indicated they would prefer starting over because of the estimated $100,000 it would cost to put a measure on the ballot. 

One possible redistricting plan councilmembers have discussed is a city staff proposal known as Scenario 5, favored by moderates. Another possibility is a proposal by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, which would alter the existing plan by adding a population differential of 5 percent into each district. 

“I think that what we need to do is lay out the criteria for a plan that will be acceptable and fair,” Mayor Shirley Dean said at Tuesday’s meeting. “But clearly ‘one-person, one-vote’ will have to be central to any plan we adopt.” 

While drawing district lines, the council is tightly bound by the City Charter. According to the city attorney, each of the city’s eight districts must have as close to 12,800 people as possible. Using the city attorney’s recommended 1 percent deviation, each district should have a difference in population of no more than 128 residents. The charter also requires that district lines not be significantly changed. 

Making matters worse, the council will also have to use faulty census bureau numbers, even though it is known there was an undercount of 4,500 people in districts 7 and 8. The city attorney said the Census Bureau has so far refused to correct its mistake and will probably never do so. 

One bit of good news is that the council will not be racing to approve a new redistricting plan by Dec. 31. City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said if the approved plan is repealed, the deadline could be pushed back to April 1. 

The moderates say they favor staff’s Scenario 5 because it takes some of the extra people in district 8 and puts them in District 7, which is represented by Councilmember Kriss Worthington. 

Progressives have said the plan is a problem because it alters the shapes of districts 7 and 8, which they claim violates the charter requirement that districts stay as close to its original 1986 shape. 

“I’d like to see a plan like Scenario 5 that distributes the population more equitably, including the undercount,” Councilmember Miriam Hawley said. “If we have to spread the undercount into three or four districts, that’s fine as long as it’s equal as possible.” 

Councilmember Dona Spring said Scenario 5 does not go far enough to spread out the undercount. 

“All the staff plan does to deal with the undercount is spread it out a little into District 7,” Spring said. “I think we have to keep our options open and try to come up with a creative solution that will fairly distribute the undercount to other districts.” 

Worthington has proposed a plan that would increase the allowable population discrepancy to 640 people, instead of the current charter restriction of 128, in each district. He said by so doing the undercount would be distributed among all eight districts. 

“I believe that would do minimal damage to the concept of “one person, one vote” and it’s the only proposal I’ve heard of that spreads the undercount throughout the entire city.” 

But at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Albuquerque said the proposal would likely be illegal because the City Charter calls for district population counts that are “as equal as possible,” and that a 1 percent deviation has been most commonly used in redistricting since Baker vs. Carr, a 1962 landmark Supreme Court case over apportionment of congressional districts.  

Worthington said that UC Berkeley “redistricting guru” Bruce Cain was convinced that a 5-percent population discrepancy would be legal and has asked to meet with Albuquerque.  

“We have looked at all the Supreme Court redistricting cases,” Albuquerque said. “But if Mr. Cain has one we missed, we would be glad to hear about it.” 

Whatever plan the council adopts it will have to take into consideration the concerns of the CFR, which has vowed to circulate another petition if the council does not significantly change the approved plan.