Districting In Montebello - Can We Take a Mulligan?
Updated: Jan 24
This is an extensive look into Montebello's districting process from March 2021 to present. Most important is the first section "Where We Are Today." It gives my thoughts on the policy decisions council needs to act on immediately and in the near future. I go on to explain my view of the districting process over the last 10 months, and what I believe to be major shortcomings in the way it has been executed.
Where We Are Today
This evening council will discuss in closed session the current status of the California Voting Rights Act (“CVRA”) challenge which is expected change our election system from at-large to by-districts. Most recently, council twice voted down an ordinance prescribing 5 districts (citing a poorly executed process e.g. lack of proper and timely outreach, lack of proper notice before public hearing meetings, lack of translation services, lack of an oversight committee – a mechanism that had received full Council consensus) before the community had a chance to comment on how many districts they believe we should have, and several workshops were held around the city on how to use the online districting tool. Prospective plaintiff may now sue Montebello alleging it has not made the required steps toward districting by some deadline, and by missing that deadline Montebello is open to greater liability since the $30,000 litigation fee cap prescribed by the CVRA is broken.
I have been hesitant to continue the current process for reasons I explain in greater detail below. It has had great enough deficiencies that I believe it needs to start over. I have advocated for several provisions which are essential to a fair and equitable process – provisions that should accompany any change in how we govern ourselves. I have and will continue to advocate the following:
A civilian oversight committee to oversee the process. I would accept a hybrid model where the oversight committee chooses a limited list of maps from a larger pool from which council will make the final decision.
A calendar of hearing dates and workshops be adopted no sooner than 90 days from the first day of a robust outreach campaign.
The robust outreach campaign will include electronic (social media, MyMontebello app alerts, Nixle notifications), traditional (standalone mailers and other print advertisements), and in-person (event booths, notifications during senior programs and youth sports) methods. It will collaborate with community-based organizations like Rotary and Montebello-Pico Democrats Club, along with non-partisan non-profit organizations, to reach a wider audience. Information will be provided in multiple languages.
Public hearings will be held around the city on weekdays and weekends. Translators will be present. These hearings will guide the audience to discuss communities of interest - comments the demographer will need to draw maps for consideration.
Council will vote on an ordinance to ratify districts, and prescribing the number of districts, only after a map has been chosen.
I believe our change from at-large to by-districts is inevitable. There has never been a successful defense by a governing body (e.g. water, school, and college districts are also subject to the law) against the CVRA; we cannot be a party to other existing litigation; and our own lawsuit would be fruitless while at significant cost. I personally believe a change to by-district elections is not right for Montebello. However, the money and resources spent fighting a battle we are very likely to lose can be better spent in other areas, and it is encouraging to know there has been greater and more diverse civic participation in places where districting has been implemented.
How We Got To This Point
Montebello City Council first heard of a possible CVRA claim against the city in March 2021. Understanding litigation was imminent, council ratified a Resolution of Intent two months later on May 26. We immediately began planning to transition Montebello's city council representative structure from at-large to by-districts where one council member would represent a part of the city. It was lightly discussed in a June council meeting where hearing dates were proposed, and updates on the potential litigation were provided in closed session regularly.
It would not be until five and six months later that the first and second public hearing would take place on October 13 and November 13. For five months there was no active outreach and education (no contracting with an outreach group to canvas the community, no citizen’s oversight committee, no mailers sent to households, etc.).
Many cities have gone through this before. It is easy to find examples of best practices on how to organize an engaging transparent process. These could have served as templates on how to perform outreach to inform the community, oversee the creation of maps, and conduct public hearings. What we ended up with is a mess. I'll try to pull the threads apart in a way that makes sense. I'll be covering:
Public outreach and education
Public hearing sessions and locations
Community participation and input
What you can do to help the process
First, a timeline of some events.
February 10, 2021
City council receives demand letter from Prospective Plaintiff
May 26, 2021
City council adopts Resolution of Intent to transition to by-district elections
June 23, 2021
Council meeting presentation informs public of Rafferty CVRA claim; staff proposes schedule of hearings
July 22, 2021
YouTube video on districting posted
Only Montebello Reporter ad before first public hearing
October 11, 2021
Only post on social media about districting before the first public hearing
October 13, 2021
First Public Hearing
November 13, 2021
Second public hearing; council votes down ordinance creating 5 districts
November 19, 2021
Districting tool released
November 27, 2021
First districting tool workshop
December 8, 2021
Council votes down ordinance creating 5 districts a second time
December 10, 2021
Deputy Director Michael Chee tells the Whitter Daily News "for now, the city’s outreach and education efforts to residents to develop district maps will be suspended until further notice."
December 15, 2021
Final districting tool workshop held with same-day notice
January 6, 2021
Community-drawn map submission deadline
Council comments? (no one comes, residents don't know history and politics, they're too busy for this)
1. Public Outreach and Education
Many questions need to be answered before drawing district lines. What is the CVRA? Do we have to do it? How much does it cost to fight in court? The community should have had answers to these questions from the day council approved the Resolution of Intent. At the June 23 regular meeting I made it very clear, and my colleagues agreed, that we needed to reach out to every voter in Montebello - especially to those people unlikely to hear about the process including seniors, those who are not proficient with technology (like computers and social media), those without internet; we needed to reach out in different languages to make sure every culture and corner of the city was engaged.
At the meeting on June 23 I asked that workshops be held around Montebello, and at different times, so people were not prevented from participating by scheduling conflicts or distance. They could be held, for instance, at the De Paul Center in the South, the Quiet Cannon in the West, the Women’s Club in Central Montebello, etc. I also asked that at least one mailer be sent to every household to cut through the noise we get in our mailbox daily. Again, there are many people who might want to participate that never heard about the process through digital media. Council discussion was very clear on our intent.
Why, then, was there only one printed advertisement in the Montebello Reporter between May and November? The city's Fall quarterly newsletter didn't mention anything about districting, and the Winter newsletter's announcement was only in English. Council also directed a separate mailer so the message wasn't lost in the noise of other advertisements and articles. That mailer was never printed or sent out. When I followed up, a staff member told me they would not accommodate something that would interfere with the quarterly newsletter. However, it is easy to see we had the capability of doing a better job at creating information. Deputy Director Michael Chee gave an excellent overview on the basics of the CVRA process. This video was posted on YouTube and provided a foundation to move forward with active outreach and education.
Materials from the California Secretary of State (SOS) provide such information in 10 different languages. The SOS describes the threshold for translation as “any language that is spoken by a group of city residents with limited English proficiency who constitute 3 percent or more of the city’s total population over four years of age for whom language can be determined.” (City and County Redistricting Process :: California Secretary of State). From the website politicaldata.com, it is known 18.1% of Montebello speak Spanish and 2.7% speak Chinese. 7.4% of our population request voting ballots in Spanish, and 1.4% request their ballots in Chinese. Other languages spoken register below 1.5%, and other ballots requested register below 0.5%. We are above the State's own threshold for supplying translation in Spanish, and very near that threshold for supplying translations in Chinese. We should bridge the gap, especially considering we are being sued for claims of underrepresentation of Asian-American voices.
2. Districting Commission
The districting process is prone to tampering. Political power is sought by establishing favorable lines for allies and unfavorable lines to kick out or disadvantage opponents. In a simple word, gerrymandering. To hedge against the possibility of this happening, the CVRA prescribes three different kinds of commissions
State law authorizes cities to create redistricting commissions. It also imposes restrictions on who can serve on these commissions. It describes three options:
Independent Districting Commission- the entire process is managed by a commission that makes the final decision on the map. The services of a demographer are also required to support the work of the commission. The council/board may offer input and comment, but it does not make the final decision. This is the most complex process because the agency must recruit, appoint and educate a new body to perform this work. This requires adopting an ordinance or resolution setting out the appointment process. Further, with the exception of charter cities, the Fair Maps Act prohibits the council/board or any elected official (e.g., mayor) from directly selecting the commission members. This approach requires approximately four or five months additional implementation time to empanel the commission.
Advisory Districting Commission - council/board may directly appoint to conduct some of the public hearings and solicit input for the council/board. However, the council/board retains the final decision on the map. The Fair Maps Act disqualifies some persons from serving on an advisory commission.
Hybrid Districting Commission - largely the same in complexity as an independent commission except that the commission approves two or more draft maps and, while the council/board gets to make the final choice, that choice is limited to the menu of maps approved by the commission. The Fair Maps Act has extensive rules for how independent and hybrid commissions work, including a large number of disqualifying factors for certain persons serving on a commission.
I, along with another councilmember, asked to explore a civilian commission. My follow up emails asking if and how to establish a commission were never responded to. Councilmember Scarlet Peralta later brought up the topic again in her council orals. There the council unanimously agreed to explore the creation of an oversight commission. That item was never brought back to council. When I asked during an October council meeting the status of the commission, Mayor Cobos-Cawthorne stated there was never consensus to create one. There was no reply to the Mayor’s remarks by other colleagues as to their previous unanimous consensus.
3. Public Hearing Sessions and Locations
The CVRA requires four public hearings before district maps are adopted - two hearings before maps are drawn, and two meetings after maps are drawn so they can be discussed.
The first public hearing dates were established just weeks after council approved the resolution of intent. When council said it was too soon, those meetings weren't rescheduled for another four months. Never in those four months did staff or council come up with a plan to reach out to the community. In the recording of the meeting where the first public hearing was held, the Mayor and Councilmember Jimenez can be heard laughing after noting how the public did not attend the meeting and council chambers were empty. The second public hearing wasn't advertised for the majority of the 30 days leading up to it; and when it was advertised, it was only done so electronically. In the week and a half leading up to the second public hearing on districting November 13, the city sent a flurry of Nixle alerts, MyMontebello app notifications, and social media posts. The effort was a welcome relief from the silence since May 2021 when council first approved a resolution on the move to districting. However, all those sensitive populations mentioned earlier could not have been aware of it.
At the second public hearing, three residents commented how they were attending that day because they received one of the flyers Councilmember Peralta and I had dropped off in the days leading up to the event. One of my most critical roles on council is to make sure the community is aware of issues of importance. I do outreach through social media, email blasts, and livestreams. In this instance I believed the issue to be so important that I printed and delivered 400 copies door to door with the help of Councilmember Peralta, friends, and family. This is the kind of effort council needs to put into these kinds of major initiatives.
4. Community Participation and Input
The CVRA process is brisk. It dictates a very specific timeline once the first public hearing is held. The entire process should, from the first hearing to final maps, take about three months. Because of strict timelines, the conversations at hearings should be guided as per the CVRA which states "the public is invited to provide input regarding the composition of the districts" (Elec. Code § 10010(a)(1)). While comments on the merits of districting and whether or not we should go to a by-district election system are appropriate, the time for these hearings is best spent receiving input on the composition of districts vis-a-vis identifying communities of interest. With an understanding of the way Montebello residents define their local-local community, the demographer can use a good-sized body of information to draw maps in a way that keeps those communities intact.
Montebello does not seem so big that we have to worry about where we draw lines. However, keep in mind that we can change the number of councilmembers to anywhere between 4 and 9; we can change a rotating mayor system to an elected mayor; and with Montebello not being built out to a master plan, we should think about how different types of communities nestled together will fit – renters and homeowners, commerce and residential, similar uses (such as the band of schools across central Montebello from Cantwell to La Merced) should all be considered.
One of my colleagues at the second public hearing responded to a question whether or not she supported districting with "I do not have enough information." Even with six months preparation and guidance from the city attorney, a councilmember is not prepared. The public, then, should be afforded extra time to understand the complexities of the CVRA.
5. What you can do to help the process.
Can the process be saved? It depends on what conversations with prospective plaintiff look like over the coming weeks. If it can be salvaged, the residents . It will take 30 minutes to understand the basics of the process, and about another 30 minutes of working in the online map making tool. In one hour you would have completed an invaluable service to the future voters of the city of Montebello. This is a moment to keep council accountable to you and understand how they perform in their leadership role.
So far council has been complacent and waited for things to happen rather than taking the appropriate steps within a generous timeframe in a way that respects the intelligence and willingness of our neighbors to have a voice in how we choose our leaders. Council must reexamine the process and commit to carrying out districting in a way that is fair, equitable, and inclusive.
Note: this article may be updated from time to time with details, California law, and other relevant information.
1/24/2022 - corrected mistake that CVRA was first heard by council March 2021. Updated table to reflect CVRA was first heard on February 10, 2021.