Visalia council narrows redistricting to six maps

Voting rights advocates say they are pleased with the city council’s top choices because they include at least two districts with a Hispanic majority in the citizen voting age populations

VISALIA – With the deadline to complete its redistricting process fast approaching, the Visalia City Council was able to narrow the number of maps from 18 down to six. 

More importantly to those who spoke at the Feb. 7 council meeting, nearly all of the maps listed in the top three choices for every councilmember included at least two districts with a Hispanic majority citizen voting age population (H-CVAP), meaning more than half of the population 18 years of age and older are Hispanic in a single city council district. 

Lori Pesante, director of civic engagement and government relations for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, has been a key voice in advocating for maps with strong H-CVAP districts, meaning those at least 55% Hispanic, at the local, county, state and congressional levels for the last 18 months. The 55% threshold was chosen to account for low voter turnout for Hispanics who often face challenges to voting, such as transportation, time off work and difficulty finding information on candidates in Spanish. Pesante suggested getting rid of any maps without at least two H-CVAP districts, such as Map 105, and Map 106, which had one H-CVAP district of 63% but a second that was at just 51%.

“So there’s definitely precedent for applying that standard of making sure that every map you consider, you can have every confidence that it draws two Latino majority CVAP districts and not just 50.01%, but like legit into the 50s,” Pesante said.

Councilmember Greg Collins attempted to rectify that by asking the city’s consultant to adjust map 106 to stay under the peak deviation of 10% and create two H-CVAP districts. He said he would also accept Map 112 as both had north-south lines that crossed Highway 198. 

“I think it’s healthy and important that this community begins to get away from the north-south issues that have plagued us in the past,” Collins said. “We’re all one community and we’re just trying to do the best we can as decision makers.”

Councilmember Liz Wynn chose maps 111, 112 and 117 for similar reasons, saying she wanted to get away from the stigma of bisecting the community into northern and southern districts along Highway 198.

Maile Melkonian, representing the League of Women Voters of Tulare County, said the city’s current map scatters the city’s largest demographic, Latinos, into multiple districts and that selecting a map with minor changes for population shifts would “continue these inequities into the coming decade.” Latinos make up 52.8% of Visalia’s population, according to the 2020 Census, yet there is only one H-CVAP district in the city under the current district boundaries.

“In the 170-year history of Visalia, there has only been one Latino elected to council even though Latinos have lived here in significant numbers throughout,” Melkonian said. 

She also noted only one of the sitting council members ran in a contested election for their current term, an indication the current boundaries discourage competition. She suggested the council approve map 110 or 111 because they offer two H-CVAP majority districts and maintain communities of interest she described as the North Visalia and St. Johns River neighborhoods.

Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian supported maps 106, 111 and 117 for their north-south alignment, low peak population deviations and keeping north of the Oval Park area together as a community of interest. 

Jesus Garcia, a demographer who worked with the city to change from at-large to by-trustee elections for councilmembers in 2014 following a lawsuit, said he had created several maps in alignment with the goals of the Fair Maps Act and federal Voting Rights Act. He said it has been difficult to get information out of the city but said he was glad to see the city listened to calls for having at least two districts with a Hispanic voting age majority. Garcia recommended the council approve one of the maps he helped create, 110, 111 or 112, because they best represented the community. 

“These maps were created by the community with community input, and again, from my experience from six or seven years ago,” Garcia said. 

Mayor Steve Nelsen said he liked maps 106, 117 and 118 but was not going to base his decision on non-Visalia residents who made comments at the meeting. 

“I appreciate the folks that have come out of town trying to give us guidance and direction but, at the end of the day, I report to citizens of Visalia and I’ll listen to that group,” Nelsen said.

One local resident, Luis Sepulveda, who recently served on the Tulare County Redistricting Commission, urged the council to eliminate all maps with less than two districts with a Hispanic majority of the citizens voting age population (CVAP). He suggested the council approve Map 112, which met all the criteria prescribed in the California Fair Maps Act. 

“By eliminating the maps that only have one H-CVAP it makes your job much easier, but it’s still going to be a difficult decision ahead,” Supulveda said. 

Councilmember Brett Taylor chose maps 106, 115 and 117 for the aforementioned north-south alignment, balanced population, protecting communities and because they seemed to be more compact. All of the maps can be found on the city’s redistricting website, www.visalia.city/drawvisalia

The next and final public hearing for redistricting maps will be held at the Feb. 22 Visalia City Council meeting. The council is expected to select a map and finalize its new election sequence at that meeting in order to meet the Feb. 28 deadline to complete the process in time for candidates to file for school board seats up for election in November 2022. 

For more information on the City of Visalia redistricting process, mapping tools, FAQs and more, visit www.visalia.city/drawvisalia.

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