Threat of lawsuit looms over county redistricting

Melo and Sarsfield law firm said they will sue if the Tulare County Board of Supervisors does not select the Delores Huerta Foundation redistricting map

TULARE COUNTY – To say a lot has happened in the last decade would be an understatement, and the time has come to reflect 10 years of births, deaths and migration in how we are represented in government.

Four maps have been approved for consideration to define the political boundaries of Tulare County’s Board of Supervisors for the next 10 years, but local law firm Melo and Sarsfield has threatened to pursue litigation enforcing the Federal Voting Rights Act if the Dolores Huerta Foundation and Equity Coalition map is not adopted for use.

So what makes their map the right map and all the others unlawful?

Redistricting uses the most recent U.S. Census Data—delayed until recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic—to redraw the lines of political boundaries for congressional, legislative, supervisorial, city council and other electoral districts to accurately represent the current population. In Tulare County, a citizen advisory commission was appointed by the board of supervisors to curate the new district maps for the board to vote on, which can be submitted by anyone. A lot of weight rides on these maps as they will remain in place for the next 10 years, defining the distribution of political power, representation and the ability for voters to elect their candidate of choice.

Specifically, the Federal and California Voting Rights Acts defend “protected classes”—voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group—against racially polarized voting. In the case of Tulare County, protected class means Latinos, as they are the only constitutionally protected class that exists in geographically definable areas at numbers large enough to trigger voting rights act (VRA) obligations.

Voting rights attorney Maggie Melo told the commission at the Sept. 9 redistricting public hearing that “a failure by the board of supervisors to adopt [the Equity Coalition map] will likely result in litigation to enforce the federal voting rights act and to vindicate the rights of our clients.” In an interview with the Sun-Gazette, Melo clarified that litigation will likely only be triggered should the board of supervisors approve the “Wells” map, which she and the clients she represents say preserves the status quo: inadequate districts with predominantly non-latino representation in a county that is 65% latino.

“[A few years ago] we told [the board] that the boundary lines for their districts were out of compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act. After lots of discussion and lengthy negotiations, the board at the time convinced us to wait until the census was out,” Melo said. “We would have made a lot of money and they would have redrawn the boundaries, and then two years later, they would have been doing the same thing.”

Two years later has arrived, and the burning of taxpayer dollars over litigation is back on the menu. Jesus Garcia, CEO of La Cresta Demographics—a firm specializing in Federal and California Voting Rights Act cases and voter data analysis—who drew the Equity Coalition map, said the stipulation lies within the use of voter registration data to create VRA districts, areas that have over 50% of the population as hispanic U.S. citizens who are registered voters actively voting, also called an “effective district.”

Garcia described the protected class redistricting process with a three step criteria, with creating 50% majority population being the first. Next is creating a citizen voting age population (CVAP) district that gives the minority voting age population who are U.S. citizens a majority vote. From there, the third step is to get the district to the level of an effective district via registered active voters. He said the maps that are drawn with thin majorities at the CVAP level are a trick to give the illusion of minority-majority.

“”By the time you get into voter data, all those voter districts fall into the 40’s or 30’s, and that’s the trick they want you to think about is, ‘We created all these districts, we gave them 52% CVAP, but they just don’t want to vote,’” Garcia said.

Garcia said the Equity Coalition map—drawn with the help of over a dozen local advocacy organizations and community input—is the only map to use voter registration data in creating its districts, despite his praise for Tulare County’s redistricting process being among the best in the nation. Tulare County chose not to hire a demographer to aid the citizen commission in the redistricting process, and instead used their geographic information systems (GIS) department to aid in mapmaking. Garcia said the county has a stellar GIS team that oversees billions of dollars in agriculture and oil, air quality and water infrastructure but voter data is another thing.

Tulare County did not list any data related to voter registration or effective districts in the final four maps, including the Equity Coalition map. The Wells map has district one—which would encompass eastern Visalia, Lindsay and the unincorporated foothills and mountains around Three Rivers in northern Tulare County—at a thin 52.3% CVAP majority, district two at 55.8% and district four at 62.4%.

John Hess, assistant county administrative officer, said the Equity Coalition map was the only one of about 40 maps the commission considered to use voter registration data, which he said is not required by the new Fair Maps Act of California, which requires cities and counties to engage communities in the redistricting process. He also said voter registration data was not taken into consideration during any meetings or discussions on any of the maps. 2020 was the first census since the Fair Maps Act was passed in 2019, and has yet to face this kind of test in the courts. Tulare County legal counsel declined to comment for this article.

Tulare in two

Much of the hoopla over the Equity Coalition map also revolves around the proposed split of Tulare, the only map to do so. The predominantly white, wealthier northeastern part of Tulare would be absorbed into District three with western Visalia and the poorer, more diverse southwestern Tulare would remain in District two with its unincorporated neighbors Pixley, Tipton, Allensworth and Earlimart. Garcia said that of the over 20,000 votes from district two in the 2020 election, 9,000 of them came from a small section of northeastern Tulare.

“Those 9,000 voters in this one square mile area [of northeastern Tulare] would be the influence of all of the second district,” Garcia said. “The little tiny towns, the Pixleys, the Alpaughs and the Ducors would all be voted upon by the nicer, well to do, very rich housing developments that are created there now.”

The disparity between the two parts of Tulare was illustrated at the Oct. 26 board of supervisors meeting by Lori Pesante, director of civic engagement for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, who spoke on behalf of the Equity Coalition.

“I was very fortunate to have a resident bring me around southwest Tulare. I got to see the water area where 2,000 people were without drinkable water for eight years; the Matheny Tract, where people are smelling burning feces smell from the sewage treatment plant pretty much all the time; the Gemini Tract that’s never been annexed into the city of Tulare that has sewage, crime and electrical problems,” Pesante said. “When we went over to Del Lago park, I got to see a really nice park that had a fishing pond in it…we want everyone in Tulare County to have needs met and to have green spaces, but unfortunately on this same day I saw people from code enforcement ticketing residents on the west side for watering their lawns. It was a stark contrast that was very real.”

Pesante said northeastern Tulare’s 86.63% voter turnout outvoted the entire population of constitutionally protected classes in southwestern Tulare County in current District two, and is therefore an ineffective VRA district.

“If we keep Tulare whole we will see that phenomena occur again, we will see voter participation radiating out from the urban center and all of those rural communities will never be able to elect a candidate of choice,” Pesante said. “When we draw fair maps together, this will not be the case.”

Tulare County redistricting commission chair John Hobbs made immediate and aggressive comments against the Equity Coalition map during Melo’s Sept. 9 presentation, to the objection of some of his fellow commissioners. Hobbs even went so far as to submit a letter to the board of supervisors without the consent of his fellow commissioners, citing his “greatest disappointment,” the map approved by the commission, “developed and financed using the substantial resources of the Dolores Huerta Foundation,” calling into question the process by which the commission approved the Equity Coalition map.

“Basically what he’s done as the chair of the commission is he has sent this letter to the board, identifying things that are not true, claiming that the process wasn’t followed,” Melo said. “It’s really inappropriate for Hobbs as the chair of this commission to go behind the commission’s back and try to undo what’s been done by the commission. He has an agenda, he wants to maintain the status quo.”

Hobbs was handpicked to serve on the redistricting commission by District two Supervisor Pete Vander Poel, who currently represents all of Tulare and the unincorporated areas of southern Tulare County. The Equity Coalition Map would draw Vander Poel out of district two.

At the Oct. 26 Board of Supervisors meeting, District one Supervisor Larry Micari brought up the letter during a public hearing, but left the author of the letter anonymous, rather than disclosing it had been penned by the chair of the redistricting commission.

Hess said the Equity Coalition map, despite being approved weeks before the others, went through the same eight-point analysis as all the other maps.

Upon Supervisor Eddie Valero attempting to steer the discussion back from procedure towards the maps as the public hearing was intended, Micari snapped at his fellow supervisor.

“I had the floor, and I am not going to be interrupted,” Micari said. “If I have a question I am going to ask it. Don’t start. Don’t start.”

Supervisor Valero is the only supervisor who would remain unchallenged by an incumbent under the Equity Coalition map. Supervisor Vander Poel and Supervisor Amy Shuklian would be pitted against each other, as would Supervisor Micari and Supervisor Townsend.

The board is expected to adopt a map by the end of this year.

The four maps up for consideration can be viewed at tularecounty.ca.gov/redistricting.

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