Which District Will You Live In?
It's a question you'll likely start asking and answering in 2022.
Districting came to council in part as a painful reaction to the violence and racism our Asian community has suffered, especially over the last year. The letters we received talked about equal representation particularly in light of the current climate – representation as voter groups, and representation as candidates or incumbents. Before I go into that discussion, I want to reaffirm the city’s commitment and dedication to our Asian American Pacific Islander population. You have been great friends, great neighbors, and a beautiful part of our community’s fabric. I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say we are all committed to your safety, protecting your culture, and representing your needs and interests.
Now there are a few issues council has to contend with when considering this topic. On its face, this move to districting is wrong for Montebello for many reasons. 1) Montebello has had diverse representation, 2) Montebello suffers from geopolitics that won’t be solved by districting, and 3) is this actually effective representation? I’ll conclude that, even in light of all this, the larger and more important issue is the threat of litigation and districting’s inevitable implementation.
We’ve had extremely diverse representation. In our recent history alone we’ve had Latino, Anglo, and Armenian councilmembers, a treasurer of South Asian descent, and a clerk of Anglo descent (not to mention the many Latinos). Names like Molinari, Hadjinian, Khwaja, and King. There are also former electeds like Malkasian and Wong. Today diversity is alive and thriving. We have one of the youngest councils ever, the second woman majority in the city’s history, an immigrant and the children of immigrants, the first councilmember of African American descent who is now Mayor Pro Tem, and a Mayor of Asian and Latino heritage. Montebello is a city where everyone has a voice when they participate.
When it comes to identity politics, Montebello is fragile. Not in terms of ethnicity, but the north/south divide. Can anyone point to that imaginary line? For now it’s ambiguous. I’ve heard everything from it lies as high as Whittier (where street designations change from north to south) to as low as Washington (as stated by a colleague at the June 26 council meeting). Districting won’t solve this perception, it will cement it. Those from the outside look in use charts and numbers that describe only symptoms while prescribing amputation as the cure. Data is a great start for finding the "what," but a far cry from solving the "why." Data neither discovers nor addresses the root of our issues.
Right now every community member has five representatives. Five pairs of listening ears, five unique minds, and five people to hold accountable. But with districts, you’ll only have one person to go to; and what happens when your one representative disagrees with you? Keep in mind terms will still be four years. That’s not changing. But instead of choosing 2 and 3 citywide councilmembers every other year, you will be left with choosing 1 district councilmember every 4 years. One choice every four years. Again, what happens when your one representative disagrees with you? Some might say "we can have an at-large mayor." But doesn't that introduce the problem we were trying to address? Districting is supposed to solve issues of dilution, not perpetuate it under a different guise.
Even considering all this, I feel the larger looming issue is the threat of litigation and districting’s incredible record of success in court. I’m not one to run at the sound of a lawsuit. This council was threatened before and continued on despite those threats. However, in this instance, it is almost a certainty that Montebello will lose and the cost would be unbelievable. Cities that have tried to fight it have faced multimillion dollar settlements. Santa Monica, who is now being heard in the California Supreme Court on this issue has so far spent between $6 and $10 million dollars with plaintiffs in that case asking for a $22 million award. Also to keep in mind - no jurisdiction has won a case in 20 years. You can find this information from a League of California Cities presentation in June 2019 called Redistricting: What You Need to Know Before, During and After the Census.
Some have asked if this can be put to the voters. Unfortunately, that does not save us from districting because the issue rests on a test in court, not the will of the people. This is discussed in a document from the League of California Cities called The California Voting Rights Act: Recent Legislation & Litigation Outcomes published May 2018. In this it describes a situation in Rancho Cucamonga in 2016 where the city received a letter demanding districting. As the city was moving toward putting it on the November 2016 ballot, a CVRA action was filed. Rancho voted for districting, but in the event the residents voted against it a case could still be filed and Rancho still be found in violation of the CVRA.
There are still many things council and the public needs to consider. Will we hold public hearings in person? Will we hold them during regular Wednesday meetings, or special meetings at a time convenient for the community? Can we wait until the city is fully open to hold public hearings in a way that the elderly, those without internet access, those without transportation, etc., can participate and provide input? Would the community ask for an independent oversight committee as per SB 1108? The list goes on. If this is about inclusivity, we should be making every effort to provide equitable access to public hearings, a transparent process, and objective maps based on data and facts not political influence and gerrymandering.
This will be a massive shift in our city’s identity. City council and staff must be thoughtful, deliberate, and highly engaging as we lay a new foundation for determining our leadership.