On Nov. 8, Palm Desert voters will get to vote on whether the city should have five electoral districts or two—but the vote will only be advisory and nonbinding.
After heated debate on June 23, the City Council approved this ballot question: “In Palm Desert now, District 1 (the area surrounding Civic Center with 20% of the population) selects one council representative every four years, and District 2 (the other 80% of the city) votes for a total of four Council representatives, picking two representatives every two years. Should District 2 be divided into four smaller districts, with all voters electing a single person from their smaller district every four years? YES or NO?”
Palm Desert’s decidedly unique two-district system was adopted by the council to settle a California Voting Rights Act of 2001 lawsuit brought by residents Karina Quintanilla and Lorraine Salas. While similar lawsuits have prompted a number of cities to move from at-large elections to district-based elections in recent years, most—including Palm Springs, Indio, Desert Hot Springs and Cathedral City—have chosen to have similarly sized districts each electing one representative.
Carlos Garcia moved to Palm Desert four years ago. He lives in the north end of the city, and he has announced his intention to run for one of the two District 2 seats up for election this November. The operator of his own marketing-research business, Garcia is a co-founding member of the Drive4Five initiative, which is pushing to have Palm Desert move to a five-district system. He said the City Council’s first subcommittee effort to create the ballot-measure language was purposefully confusing. It said: “In Palm Desert now, District 1 (the area surrounding Civic Center with 20% of the population) selects one council representative every four years, and District 2 (the other 80% of the city) votes for a total of four council representatives, selecting two every two years. Should this system be kept rather than dividing District 2 up into four smaller districts, with all voters only able to select one of the five Council representatives? YES or NO?”
“It was a masterpiece of obfuscation. It made the whole effort toward five districts look like it was designed to take power away from District 2 residents,” Garcia said.
Since the adoption of the unique two-district system, some city officials and council members have done their best to steer all city residents toward accepting the two-district solution—from creating and distributing citywide informational materials in early 2020 that implied the two-district option had been finalized when it had not, to this ballot-language argument.
Two-district-system proponents—including a majority of the current City Council—contend that the at-large election format unites the city, while a division of the population into five districts will cause intra-city battles over resources and competing community needs.
“You know, we’re so divided as a country,” said District 2 Councilmember Sabby Jonathan during the Jan. 27 City Council meeting. “Really divided as a country. Why would we want to further divide our own small and wonderful city? And it is a small city, barely over 50,000. We hear from some of our residents that it’s not fair for District 2 to get to vote for four council members while District 1 gets to vote for just one. They perceive that it’s better to have four elected officials accountable to each resident rather than just one. And I concur. So why would we want to deprive 80% of our residents of that privilege? Our logo is ‘Unite Palm Desert.’ Let’s heed the wisdom of our words. If we can’t go back to an at-large city because we were sued … then let’s not make matters worse by literally dividing our city in five.”
Garcia disagrees heartily, pointing out that all five current council members reside south of the wash area, with none in the rapidly developing “northern sphere,” as City Council members refer to the areas north of Country Club Drive between Monterey Avenue and Washington Street.
“Their main argument is that this will be divisive,” Garcia said. “What’s divisive is having less than half the city with all of the representation, and the rest of the city having none. That’s divisive.
“Also, they say it will ruin the culture of Palm Desert. That, to me, is dog-whistle language for (leaving) control in the hands of the powers that be: ‘The rich white people will maintain their control, and that’s the way it always has been, and that’s the way it always should be. Damn the demographics; damn the new parts of the city; we’re going to do everything we can to keep the power structure in place as long as we can.’”
After the City Council approved of the CVRA settlement in December 2019, co-plaintiff Karina Quintanilla ran successfully for the newly created District 1 seat in 2020. She said her goal has always been to help bring about the creation of five electoral districts in the city.
“It is a very unusual circumstance for our city to start with two districts,” Quintanilla said. “But it’s been very, very important for me to be sure that this (whole districting) process was done out in the open, so people could understand why there’s hesitation, and how districts are drawn instead of having this change be pushed upon them without any possible understanding or insight. … Sometimes it feels that we’re trying to stay stagnant by not acknowledging the changing demographics and the changing future in Palm Desert. I shouldn’t be the youngest woman ever elected (to the Palm Desert City Council). We need people of different voices to come and step forward.”
Garcia talked about a long list of Palm Desert issues that none of the current council members fully understand because of where they live—for example, concerns over traffic should the Cal State University-Palm Desert campus become a reality, or the struggle with accumulations of wind-blown sand on roadways and yards in the neighborhoods closest to Interstate 10.
“We get really bad sandstorms that leave dunes on the roads … and we can go for weeks without (any city service) paying any attention whatsoever,” Garcia said. “People driving over it risk losing traction with their car, so it’s a real public safety issue. This whole north part of town has this issue, and the south part of town doesn’t see it, doesn’t experience it, so it’s meaningless to them. … Finally they have started doing something about this, but it took some prodding and bringing it to their attention, because they just didn’t see it.”
While Palm Desert voters will finally get to make their collective preference known come November, City Clerk Anthony Mejia confirmed via email that the City Council still has the final say.
“It is a non-binding advisory vote,” he wrote. “The City Council may use the results as another source of information in forming its decisions.”
If the voters express a preference for the five-district system, and the City Council decides to keep the current two-district system anyway, Mejia said the only recourse available for city residents to pursue would be an involved legal process to have their own initiative placed on a future city ballot.
“A citizen-led initiative is an exact process, and I highly recommend proponents seek legal advice,” Mejia wrote. “From a high level, a citizen-led initiative must: File a notice of intention consisting of the written text of the initiative; request a ballot title and summary; cause the notice of intention to publish, and; circulate the petition to be signed by no less than 10% of the voters of the city within 180 days from the date of receipt of the ballot title and summary. If the petition is sufficient, the City Council may choose to adopt the ordinance with no modifications, or submit the matter for a future election.”