Redwood City has begun the process of switching from at-large to by-district elections for the City Council and the new system will take effect in 2020. Residents will soon have plenty of opportunities to weigh in on district boundaries, election ...
Redwood City has begun the process of switching from at-large to by-district elections for the City Council and the new system will take effect in 2020.
Residents will soon have plenty of opportunities to weigh in on district boundaries, election cycles and whether the council will retain seven seats with a rotating mayor or just six seats with a mayor elected at large.
The council adopted a resolution of intent — the first step of the transition — at a meeting on Monday, Sept. 24.
The move was prompted by a letter from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman, which threatened litigation if the city did not voluntarily adopt district elections, meaning councilmembers are voted on by a specific district or ward in which they live.
Shenkman claimed Redwood City’s current election system violates the California Voting Rights Act because it “dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the city’s council elections.”
Latinos comprise 39 percent of Redwood City’s population and currently just one of the city’s seven councilmembers, Alicia Aguirre, is Latina. However, Aguirre isn’t the only racial minority on the council. Councilman Jeff Gee is Asian-American and Mayor Ian Bain is African-American.
No city that has challenged Shenkman in court has won — they all end up switching to district elections eventually — and litigation can cost taxpayers millions. For those reasons and others, the council agreed to transition.
During public comment, several speakers celebrated by-district elections because they felt the system would encourage greater diversity on the council.
“We believe that moving forward to district elections is a right step in the right direction to break the legacy of underrepresentation on the council, boards and commissions,” Connie Guerrero, a former planning commissioner, said on behalf of local group Latino Focus.
Some councilmembers said the council is already diverse, but also embraced the situation as an opportunity for the city to come together and develop a system that’s as inclusive as possible.
“I do look forward to moving forward with this conversation and agree that we are very well represented up here currently. But at the same time … just hearing from the community, they don’t quite feel represented so I want that conversation to take place,” Councilwoman Janet Borgens said. “I want them at the table, I want to find out what we need to do to accomplish that.”
Borgens added that the cost of running for office prevents some residents from doing so and suggested addressing campaign finance reform in the future.
Mayor Bain said he only reluctantly agreed to the switch, not because he opposes district elections, but because they were “thrust upon us.” And he seemed to resent the implications of Shenkman’s demand.
“There are still people looking at us in terms of where our ancestors came from. The concept of race is a sociological concept, it’s not a scientific concept,” he said, adding that his own ancestry is African, European and Native American in that order. “However none of those represented a majority of my genetic makeup. So I’m a bit of an anomaly in that I grew up not identifying with a race, I still don’t. It’s a concept that I fundamentally reject and it’s a concept that factors into none of my decisions.”
Bain said he voted for Aguirre when she ran for office, and her Latina heritage “did not factor into” his decision.
He also said he’s concerned that district elections could compromise Redwood City’s small-town feel and wondered if every district would have enough people willing to run for office.
Bain went on to offer a few suggestions moving forward.
“My preference is for compactness rather than try to draw everybody into the downtown. I think we all have a stake in the downtown, whether or not a district touches the downtown,” he said. “And the easiest thing for us to do at this point is to maintain seven seats on the council elected by district with a rotating mayor. We’ve never had a mayoral rotation policy and I think it’s desperately overdue.”
Bain felt the six-district option with an at-large mayor should be discussed after the 2020 census, when district maps will again have to be redrawn.
Residents can provide input on district maps at public hearings in both October and November and they’ll have until Jan. 3 to submit their own draft maps for consideration. After that, there will be two more public hearings for residents to weigh in on the maps and cycle of elections. An ordinance codifying all of the changes to the election system will be adopted in March of 2019, with the first district elections to be held in four districts by November of 2020. Districts will be redrawn in 2021 based on 2020 census data, and the remaining three districts will hold their first elections in November of 2022.
More than 100 cities in California have made the switch to district elections.
In San Mateo County, Menlo Park recently switched to district elections and South San Francisco and Half Moon Bay are in the process of transitioning, as is the San Mateo County Harbor Commission.
Sequoia Union High and Redwood City Elementary school district officials and the county Board of Supervisors made similar choices as well. The San Mateo County Community College District adopted the by-district system but without being threatened by a lawsuit.
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