Visalia sets timetable for redrawing political lines

Delayed Census will give public agencies less than six months to redraw political boundaries before candidate have to file for the 2022 primary election

VISALIA – Redistricting based on the decennial census is not something which should be rushed, but this year most public agencies won’t have a choice.

At its July 19 meeting, the Visalia City Council held a work session on the process to redraw the boundaries of city political districts based on population changes reported in the 2020 U.S. Census.

There are several overarching rules the city must follow during its redistricting process. Federal law says the districts must be of equal population and gerrymandering based on race is illegal. State law imposes even more rules on the process, such as: Prohibiting discriminating against a political party; requiring all districts to be contiguous, meaning no district islands within other districts, must attempt to keep neighborhoods together; drawing easily identifiable boundaries, such as streets; and creating at least one majority minority district. All of these laws must be followed while also attempting to minimize voter shifts, to keep current officials in districts they were elected to represent, and preserve the core of the existing districts while attempting to project where future population growth will occur.

The already complicated process — which requires two public hearings held prior to the city drafting new maps and two after the maps are released and have at least seven days between the release of the final map and adoption by the council—has been complicated further by a condensed timeline.

Normally the city would have received the Census in April 2021, giving the city eight months to complete the process before candidates file for the 2022 primary election. COVID caused a significant delay in obtaining surveys from those who did not respond to emails, letters and phone calls from volunteers, originally pushing back the Census’ release date to July 1 and again to Sept. 30, and possibly even into October. The delayed release prompted California to push its primary from March to June 2022, which still only give the city less than six months to complete the process before candidates file. Allison Mackey, communications manager for the city, said she expects the final maps won’t be adopted until April 2022.

“This is really unfair for people wanting to run, especially those right on the boundary, because they don’t know which way it is going to go,” councilmember Brian Poochigian said.

The city is also required to do extensive outreach in the community, even though the process is so heavily regulated most public comments will probably violate one or more of the rules. Mayor Steve Nelsen suggested an “accelerated program” by using an existing committee to do outreach for the city instead of taking time to create a new commission.

“We need to have more condensed outreach meetings, because we need to get this done sooner rather than later,” Nelsen said.

The council went with the staff’s recommendation to use the Measure N Committee, which oversees the spending plan for the city’s half-cent sales tax measure approved in 2016. “It is well poised to begin work with staff and the consultant immediately,” the report stated.

The city also recommended contracting with a law firm and a consulting firm specializing in redistricting to expedite the process. The council rehired Nielsen Merksamer, a highly regarded law firm in the field of political redistricting, which worked with the city in 2014-15 when it initially made the shift from at-large to district elections. City attorney Alex Peltzer, of Peltzer and Richardson in Visalia, said his firm would be intimately involved in the process but recommended having specialized legal counsel for such as complex issue. Merksamer charges between $50 and $635 per hour.

The city also rehired NDC, a professional consulting firm, to perform the needed technical tasks to establish election districts. NDC presented the council with three pricing options to complete the redistricting process, ranging in price from $69,500 to $139,500. The council went with the middle of option of $79,500. Incoming city manager Leslie Caviglia said none of the options included some of the more “high-tech fun options” such as a web site and ESRI Redistricting software, providing an interactive look at different maps.

The council voted 4-0 to approve the NDC contract, task the Measure N committee with public outreach, to rehire the consulting law firm and increase the redistricting process budget from $75,000 to $140,000.

This project currently has $75,000 budgeted. Staff is recommending to appropriate an additional $65,000 from the General Fund bringing the project total to $140,000to cover the anticipated costs.

“I don’t think lines are going to change dramatically,” Councilmember Greg Collins said. The lines will move from one street to another but I don’t see a wholesale rearranging of the district lines.”

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