The Selma City Council wants to change the way people vote for council members by creating districts versus at-large voting. But mapping those districts is a complicated process and community and council members have different ideas on how to make it fair.
The first set of district maps that were shown to the five-member council drew controversy at this week's meeting.
“I believe that you’re going against the very thing that you wanted to do when you create districts,” Sandi Niswander told the council. “You wanted districts so that the public could vote for people in their general area. The maps that have been proposed were drawn so that each of you have a district.”
The maps were presented by a senior consultant from a well-known redistricting company Selma hired, the National Demographics Corporation, or NDC. All three maps the NDC drew had the sitting council members in separate districts, even though the members’ homes are concentrated in two neighborhoods on the east side of town.
Council Members Jim Avalos and John Trujillo live within a few blocks of each other in the northeast corner of the city. Mayor Scott Roberston and Mayor Pro Tem Louis Franco live across the street from each other in the central-east side of Selma, and Council Member Sarah Guerra lives nearby.
“It’s not our fault one lives across the street from the other one,” said Niswander, a former Selma council member who has lived in the city for 51 years. “Why draw a line down the middle of the street for one block just to put them in two districts?”
It’s not unusual for demographers to take into consideration where the council members live when drawing district maps, said Shalice Tilton, the NDC consultant who presented the maps. It’s included in the Voting Rights Act’s traditional principles, which lists what needs to be considered when creating districts, like having an even population among districts and pairing communities that have common interests.
“It’s a recognized and expected criteria to use when districts are drawn if it’s possible to do so,” Tilton said. “Oftentimes it’s just not possible. The most important thing is communities of interest, so making sure that we’re keeping like neighborhoods together.”
However, taking into consideration where the council members live should not be a top priority, said a Bakersfield-based demographer, Jesus Garcia. He’s been drawing maps around the Valley and state for 35 years.
“Obviously the intent here is to make sure that the incumbents, where they sit now, have a seat at the table,” Garcia said about one of the NDC maps.
Demographers receive guidance from elected officials on how to draw the maps, Garcia said. If elected officials choose districts based on the voters they want, he said, they’re going to get re-elected.
“In the ideal world, the idea of incumbency should not come into account, but it’s about power and it’s about influence, and it’s about ego,” Garcia said. “Whether you're talking to city council, or water districts, or state assembly, or congress it’s the same idea of continuing to stay in power.”
Trujillo said putting all the council members in separate districts doesn't make sense because they all live so close to each other. It’s not an accurate representation of the city, he said.
“I don’t think they [the maps] look right,” Trujillo told Valley Public Radio. “I’m not going to name names,” he said, but some council members are “100 percent” looking out for their own seats rather than the community interest.
Councilman Franco said, “If we’re going to go to districts and have full representation, it’s hard to say [that where the five council members live now] is representative of the community.”
The maps are going to be confusing for community members trying to figure out their districts, Franco added, because some of the proposed districts stretch across the whole city in odd shapes.
Franco and Trujillo said they wouldn’t oppose a map that paired them in the same district as another council member. “It is what it is,” Trujillo said.
But at this week’s council meeting, the mayor contested that district lines shouldn’t be drawn with the intention of taking a council member out of his seat. The intent of districting was to comply with the Voting Rights Act, and for the “betterment of the community,” Robertson said.
“Equating looking after the community and districting with kicking council people out who have got votes in the past, and who have won, is not the same, and that is unjust and gerrymandering in my opinion,” Robertson said.
However, Tilton said, pairing council members in the same districts doesn’t violate the Voting Rights Act and isn’t gerrymandering. The maps the NDC submitted also comply with the law, she added.
The council did a “pretty good job” at defining communities of interest based on the traditional districting principles, Tilton said. Some of the council's suggestions were to have multiple members representing neighborhoods like the barrio, downtown, and the west side of town, she said, and the maps represent that.
Roberston said he wants to represent the whole community regardless of what area he lives in.
“This is not an academic abstract exercise to hold onto power,” Roberston said. “Just doing something in quadrants I think goes away from the whole purpose, perverts the whole purpose, of us running for council in the first place.”
Why Get Districts Now?
Having district elections can potentially save cities thousands of dollars, Robertson said. Without districts, it’s likely the city would receive a demand letter, he said, which threatens to sue the city under the Voting Rights Act if it doesn’t agree to create districted elections.
It’s common for cities to take this step, said Douglas Johnson, founder and president of the NDC. The NDC has created maps for hundreds of clients in California and other states for 29 years. Its clients include 44 counties, cities, schools and hospital districts in the San Joaquin Valley.
Councilman Avalos said he would have wanted to wait until 2021 to district the city because if it districts now, it will have to redistrict then anyway. The Voting Rights Act requires local, state and federal governments to redistrict after every census, which is coming up next year. District lines are mostly dependent on census data.
Creating districts for one election like Selma is doing is “odd” Johnson said, but “we have these attorneys running around that are sending these [demand] letters and filing these lawsuits” so for some cities, it’s more about saving money.
Just receiving a demand letter can cost cities up to $30,000 for attorney fees and costs from the city. Visalia, Tulare, Lemoore, and Porterville are some Valley cities that have received letters.
Out of the 14 other incorporated cities in Fresno County, seven still don’t have districts: they are Clovis, Firebaugh, Fowler, Huron, Mendota, San Joaquin, and Orange Cove.
NDC Maps vs. Community Maps
Citizens were also allowed to submit their own district maps, and eight people did.
“Kudos to your community, you did get people involved. Unfortunately, we don’t always see that in other cities,” NDC consultant Tilton told the council during the Tuesday meeting.
Maps that are submitted by the community are helpful to demographers,Tilton said. It helps them identify how people view different neighborhoods and which neighborhoods align with one another.
However, the NDC maps didn’t resemble the community maps, Tilton said, because “it was virtually impossible to get near population balance.”
None of the eight community maps had an equal number of people in the districts, which is one of the most important factors, Tilton said. The numbers were too imbalanced to tweak and “it would be a major redraw of the maps,” Tilton said.
But Garcia, an independent demographer, said it seems “obvious” a map closer to the community maps could be created because the population data is there. Garcia said the NDC could work with the community to come up with a map that didn’t prioritize where the council members lived.
The community maps are all pretty similar, Garcia said, and it shows that where the council members live now doesn’t represent how people see their neighborhoods. “For me, that is the reference point. What does the community want?”
NDC President Johnson said the maps the NDC drew for Selma are legal, “so why take the choice away from the voters?”
“The idea is it lets the voters decide which council members have earned another term, as opposed to if council members get paired, then it doesn’t matter what the voters think,” Johnson said. “At least one of them can’t serve another term.”
Selma resident Theresa Salas drew one of the community maps and said during the meeting that she understands the council wants to keep their seats, but the way the NDC maps drew the lines doesn’t make sense or reflect what the community wanted.
“You didn’t make on a single map that was even slightly close to what the public submitted,” she said. “We’d like to see one.”
Roberston argued he didn’t think another map was needed because the council was already presented with three legal maps.
Community members had until today [Friday] to submit new maps and Tilton said, “I hope they do.”
If new community maps were submitted, the council will discuss them during the next meeting on Sept. 16, at which time the council could vote on a map or extend the vote. The deadline to adopt a map is Oct. 7.