Mal Richardson, of Best, Best & Krieger—the law firm hired by Palm Desert to manage this year’s redistricting effort—explains the process during the Jan. 13 City Council meeting.

On Jan. 13, the Palm Desert City Council held its first public hearing on the “re-drawing of council member boundaries”—a process that’s taking place in cities across the state and country following the 2020 United States Census.

However, in Palm Desert, the situation is a little more complicated than normal, thanks to the city’s decidedly unique two-district format.

Mal Richardson, of Best, Best & Krieger—the law firm hired by the city to manage this year’s redistricting effort—opened the hearing portion of the meeting with a review of how the redistricting process works, and a discussion of next steps and additional required hearings.

The once-a-decade redistricting process is intended to ensure that all districts have equal populations, more or less. The new California Fair Maps Act requires that Palm Desert’s redistricting process be completed by April 17 of this year.

Palm Desert moved from an at-large voting system to a two-district system in 2020, after settling a lawsuit brought by two Palm Desert residents claiming the city was violating the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. According to the terms of that settlement, the population of District 1 (sometimes referred to as the downtown district), represented by one City Council member, must be between 18.4% and 21.6% of the city’s total population. The population of District 2—the rest of the city, represented by four City Council members—must be between 78.4% and 81.6% of the total population.

An adjustment will need to be made, because the 2020 U.S. Census showed the current District 1 population to equal just 18.1% percent of the city total, with District 2 equaling 81.9%. A demographer working with the city will be submitting map proposals throughout the process, beginning with the second public hearing, slated for Jan. 27. City residents are encouraged to submit their own proposed boundaries in map form at any time prior to the third public hearing, scheduled for Feb. 24. A fourth public hearing is scheduled for March 10. Details on the entire process can be found at www.engagepalmdesert.com/2022-redistricting.

Back in 2019 and 2020, there was an impassioned debate regarding the wisdom of creating only two districts in Palm Desert rather than adopting the more-traditional paradigm of five districts, with each represented by one councilmember. Just 11 minutes into the Jan. 13 meeting, this “elephant in the room” was put before the council by Palm Desert resident Joan Speer, who asked during the public comment (via phone): “I’m wondering why we are spending so much time on redistricting for two districts, when going to a five districts system now provides local and fair representation for all parts of Palm Desert.”

Shortly afterward, Mayor Jan Harnik addressed the question by apologizing for not including a discussion of the five-district solution as an agenda item for that day’s meeting, despite outgoing Mayor Kathleen Kelly’s request in December to do so. Harnik promised that such a discussion would be included on the Jan. 27 agenda.

“The possibility of putting this issue on the ballot is what I asked (the mayor) to place on the agenda for discussion. I want to be careful about not taking a firm position until I listen to everybody’s input and participate in that discussion, but that’s certainly the direction in which I’m leaning.” palm desert city council member kathleen kelly

Given the time crunch, however, the council may have little choice but to redraw the two district boundaries now, and address the possible five-district arrangement later. On Oct. 28 of last year, city attorney Robert Hargreaves told the council it had three options for responding to the five-district issue: They could put the question before voters in an upcoming election; they could vote to make the change themselves; or they could maintain the status quo and continue with two districts.

Whether there’s an appetite on the part of the current council to reopen this thorny question remains uncertain.

“The point of not having five districts is to keep people as focused as possible on the interests of the entire city,” said Kathleen Kelly, one of the District 2 council members, in a subsequent interview. “You know, it’s not a huge city; 52,000 people is not a really large number in the scheme of things. So the point of not having five districts is to keep everybody focused on the common good and prevent people from becoming too provincial. I think that five districts is a great solution for a jurisdiction that, frankly, (has a) tradition where one part of the city is better resourced than other parts, and the resourced part is electing the people who are making the decisions. When that pattern exists, districts are a great solution. People should look carefully at whether, in our circumstance, it’s a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

While Palm Desert’s population is small compared to many cities in California, there are other examples of cities with populations of 50,000 or less—like Lincoln, Menlo Park and Palm Springs—where five districts have been created. Kelly said she thinks it may be best to put the matter in front of voters.

“The possibility of putting this issue on the ballot is what I asked (the mayor) to place on the agenda for discussion,” Kelly said. “I want to be careful about not taking a firm position until I listen to everybody’s input and participate in that discussion, but that’s certainly the direction in which I’m leaning. I think that when it comes to the basic decisions about government, we are elected to do the research and make those decisions … but how we get chosen to do that, I can see more properly being the province of the voters. So I see a basis for distinguishing that issue from other issues that we’re elected to deal with.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...