After the redistribution, the lawyers plead for more districts. Or none at all. – Voice of San Diego

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

For years Barry Pollard has met a group of neighbors engaged over coffee to discuss issues of life and community. The longtime leader from Southeast San Diego calls the group his “personal think tank” because these conversations often inspire his work. The group helps him manage events and come up with innovative solutions to problems. A recent meeting was no different as they dwelled on the redistribution.

Pollard had been frustrated with the process this year – with the coded racism many speakers and commissioners used in meetings and the obstacles faced by communities of color in trying to increase their voting power. But then one of the men – someone who has been involved in the work for a long time and lives in Emerald Hills – said something that stopped the group’s conversation in its tracks.

What if they got rid of city council districts and had all council seats elected in general – or in simpler terms, by the entire city?

“If they keep jerking off with this gerrymandering, we’ll throw this whole system out and open these city council districts to city-wide elections,” Pollard said in an interview.

In 1988, voters in San Diego approved a system that would elect city council members by district. At the time, it made sense for communities of color to stand up for districts so that they could consolidate their power, Pollard said.

But today the game has changed, he said. Pushing district elections made sense when communities of color remained “minorities” in terms of population and relegated to segregated communities south of Interstate 8. Today the city is predominantly non-white, and Latinos and Asians, in particular, thrive in areas across the city.

The city of San Diego is 53% non-white, according to 2020 census data. White voters still make up a slight majority of the city’s voting age population, making up just over 51% of the city. But that’s based on a 2019 survey, not 2020 census data, due to delays in releasing the data this year. And that number is expected to change, as the region’s Latin American and Asian populations are expected to increase.

“The numbers are the numbers,” Pollard said. “The minorities are going to be the majority.

Pollard sees the solution to what he sees as an interrupted redistribution process is to get rid of the districts all together. Others, however, believe the answer is increasing the number of city-wide districts in the hope that each member of city council might be more representative of the population they are supposed to serve if they represent less. of people.

“If you have more districts, you have more options and opportunities to create appropriate representation,” said Adrian Kwiatkowski, a lobbyist who recently ran for city council. “It seems like a natural evolution for local government to try to have as many voices as possible to participate in the process.”

Kwiatkowaski was part of the charter review committee which recommended that the city add a ninth council member in 2010. Prior to that and since 1963, when voters approved the addition of two council members, the city had eight.

But in 2010, voters in San Diego approved a ninth municipal district – while making the strong mayor’s form of government permanent – which was then created during the 2011 redistribution process.

District 9 – the new district – became the city’s second Latino empowerment district, along with District 8. Its slight Latino majority improved its chances of electing a Latino and making the city council more representative of the population. from the city.

The charter review committee first proposed adding three new districts, before settling on the proposal to add just one.

Kwiatkowski said the move was largely political – it was easier to sell the fees of just one additional city council member and his staff. At the time, they estimated that the cost of a new Council office would be around an additional $ 1 million.

“When we think of city council, we think of the people who should have strong ties to the community, who need to know what’s going on in the neighborhood, who are responsible for the potholes, the streetlights, the ‘community and investment vibe,’ said Emily Serafy-Cox, who was the executive director of an organization called EMPOWER San Diego and worked with several marginalized communities across town to create a map during the process. 2011 redistribution that included the creation of the second Latino Empowerment District. “It’s hard to do in a city district the size of San Diego City Districts, and it’s hard to do when you have to raise a quarter of a million to be elected to city council. “

Kwiatkowski has said from his own personal experience that it is impossible for candidates to go door to door to speak to voters and voters.

“I encourage the mayor and city council to form a committee or a working group to look at this issue and come back with a report to have a solid discussion on the issue,” he said. “At the end of the day – the cost of representation and democracy, how do you assess that? “

With the last drawn districts, the San Diego council districts number between approximately 149,000 and just under 159,000 people.

Some cities have more representatives per capita than San Diego. Long Beach, for example, has nine council members who represent districts, but a population of 491,564, compared to San Diego’s 1.41 million. Dallas, Texas, with a population of 1.33 million, has 14 city council members.

The country’s two largest city councils are in New York and Chicago, which have 51 and 50 members, respectively.

But there are also cities comparable to San Diego, or where officials represent even more voters. Each of the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council, for example, represents approximately 260,000 people.

There is no agreement on what an ideal voter-to-politician ratio should look like. At the Constitutional Convention, George Washington said members of the House of Representatives representing 40,000 people would be too much – and lowered that number to 30,000 people per representative. Today, the members of the House of Representatives represent approximately 747,000 people.

“It’s interesting that no one has ever found an adequate number,” said James Ingram, professor of political science at San Diego State University, who has helped revise several California city charters.

Ingram said the addition of municipal districts is generally politically unpopular. When he was involved in the change of the city of Los Angeles charter in the 1990s, they specifically separated the proposal to increase the size of the council into a separate voting measure so that it did not block some other changes. Indeed, the measure to increase the size of the board failed, while the other measure was adopted.

“The idea of ​​having more politicians makes it difficult,” Ingram said. “It’s unpopular because you are increasing the money spent on salaries – the number of employees, the number of offices. “

Ingram said he was surprised that voters in San Diego had approved a ninth district, but suspects this is because an even number of council members once the mayor is no longer on council could result in disruptions. tied votes, including votes to override a mayor’s veto.

While more districts may provide more opportunities for marginalized communities to elect their preferred representatives, Ingram said this could also dilute the power of individual council members, which could negatively impact marginalized communities who do not develop. For example, if there is only one black representative on the board regardless of the number of districts, his or her vote would have more weight in a nine-member board than one of the eleven members.

“I don’t think the disadvantages will significantly outweigh the advantages,” Serafy-Cox said.

What comes down – even with more neighborhoods – is how you redirect, she said, and whether you redirect in a way that is representative of the city.

But that’s why Pollard doesn’t think more districts are the answer. He does not trust the redistribution process.

“It would be more of the same,” he said. “Just another neighborhood to play with. It will just be more gerrymandering. People are going to do whatever they can to slow down this powershift. “

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