MARTINEZ, Calif. – More than a dozen people, including representatives of the Women’s League of Voters, Common Cause and 1000 Friends of Martinez urged the city council to adopt an ordinance establishing an independent redistricting commission at a Sept. 4 meeting
Speaking for a new group, Martinez Residents for an Independent Redistricting Commission, Mike Flemming asked the council to put a proposed ordinance establishing such a commission on the next council agenda for two reasons.
First, because the existing city council election district boundaries were influenced by politics, they are not compact, cohesive, nor do they conform to election standards, according to Flemming and other speakers.
“I was happy with the at-large (election process), but now that we must have (district) maps, I do not think it should be gerrymandered,” resident Christine Shannon remarked
Secondly, by doing so, the council could end legal action against the City of Martinez, brought by resident Felix Sanchez and his attorney Kevin Shenkman.
The effort to establish an independent commission began a chain of events sparked by a letter from Shenkman, a Malibu attorney who threatened, in Oct. 2017, to sue the City on behalf of a San Antonio, Texas, Latino activist organization.
Shenkman has a practice of similar sending letters to elected bodies, (including the Martinez Unified School District) accusing them of using at-large voting systems to dilute the votes of minorities.
Shenkman had a winning record at that time. Palmdale fought Shenkman in court and lost $7 million-plus another $4.6 million for attorney compensation in a court-imposed by-district voting case.
With that in mind, the City capitulated to demands that its former “at-large” elections stop and that the city form neighborhood districts. A consultant was hired to design the map and a number of public meetings were held.
The consultant was reportedly asked to draw lines so each district was generally a microcosm of the city instead of each district being a one-seat representation of each part of town. The idea was to avoid balkanizing the town.
It seems the council got what was requested. Resident Linda Lang mentioned that one current district contains 15 neighborhoods, as she reiterated the objections of the other speakers.
Consultant National Demographics Corp. then observed that although there is a somewhat larger Latino population in one area, minority populations are generally spread throughout the city.
They said population differences in each of the districts had to be less than a combined 10 percent. Many maps were discussed before the adoption of the present one, which some say looks like slices of bread. Apparently four of the five council members live downtown, within blocks of each other.
The first city council districted election for four members of the council was held in November 2018, with the Mayoral vote remaining at-large.
The current Sanchez lawsuit reportedly alleges the district lines were gerrymandered.
Helen Grieco, California Common Cause activist said she had had meetings with city officials and Shenkman, and that she had helped provide an ordinance that the city could approve. “I am here…put me to work.” she commented. The non-partisan organization was founded in 1970 for the purpose of providing information on good governance practices, according to Grieco.
Harland Strickland, a 37-year resident stated, “Martinez residents outside of downtown are interested in more than ‘potholes and dog parks.’” Then he listed a series of issues including traffic and schools. (Martinez Students attend schools in two school districts.)
Referring to the Sanchez lawsuit, Mark Thomson said to the council, “We are stuck with these districts. You have been offered a way to get past this issue.” Thomson is a former council candidate and part of the 1000 Friends of Martinez organization.
Debi Reuters held up a map of Antioch, with no “nooks and crannies.” “I’m tired of the city wasting money on lawsuits If you can’t do the right thing you shouldn’t be in it,” Roiter remarked. “Voters should choose city council members, not the council choosing them.”
Finally, Mayor Rob Schroder said the council could not respond at this time, and he is not completely sure that the lawsuit would be dropped, even if the council adopted the ordinance to form an independent redistricting commission. The council will be discussing it with city attorneys.