Palm Desert moved to a district-based voting system in order to settle a lawsuit—but the system, which puts 80 percent of the city into one huge district, is quite unusual.

On Election Day last November, the city of Palm Desert asked residents whether the city should continue to be organized into two voting districts—a larger one with four City Council representatives, and a smaller district with one representative—or be divided into five districts, each with its own representative.

The final tally of the advisory Measure B: 53.24% of voters chose the five-district option, while 46.76% of voters chose to maintain the two-district status quo.

At the Dec. 15 City Council session, Palm Desert resident Ralph Perry spoke out in favor of five districts.

“The people have spoken, and they want to see this happen,” Perry said. “I know this is a sensitive subject, but I think this can be approached with the idea to make this a ‘win-win’ for all, as much as possible. I hope there can be forward momentum with this on a timely basis in 2023.”

Gregg Akkerman, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council, also spoke out in favor of five electoral districts.

“I, too, am very enthusiastic about seeing that Measure B is followed up on, and that the city move that to be a top goal to be followed up on,” he said.

At that meeting, the council established a two-person subcommittee to consider the matter, consisting of Jan Harnik, who previously said she was opposed to moving to five districts, and Karina Quintanilla, who has been in favor.

The Independent recently asked to speak to both of them about the matter. While Quintanilla did speak with us, Harnik refused and passed the request on to Mayor Kathleen Kelly for her consideration. City of Palm Desert spokesman Thomas Soule then let us know via email that Kelly “felt that it would not be appropriate to comment at this point. As you know, a subcommittee of two councilmembers was appointed to consider alternative voting systems and report back to the full council.”

The phrase “alternative voting systems” is curious, seeing as the language and results of Measure B seemed quite clear. We asked Quintanilla whether her and Harnik would be discussing whether to move to five districts, or how to move to five districts.

“It’s about how,” Quintanilla said. “I can’t speak for what Councilmember Harnik’s thoughts are, or her vision of how we accomplish this. I am looking at what other cities have done.”

Quintanilla said she’s suggested the city reach out to Paul Mitchell, who heads the company Redistricting Partners. According to the company’s website, Mitchell has conducted redistricting efforts for more than 75 states, cities, school boards and community college districts.

“Everybody who’s going to be in the room will have their own take on how best we can proceed to get to five districts,” Quintanilla said. “That is the position that I obviously support, and although we may have different takes on how that should happen, we’ll have to find that common ground. … For me, the reason it was crucial to let the voters decide this question is that democracy works best when the largest number of people are participating.”

Another unsuccessful candidate in the 2022 Palm Desert city election, Carlos Garcia, pointed out that no council representatives lived in the north side of the city, between Country Club Drive and Interstate 10—even though that’s the part of the city where the most rapid development is taking place. We asked Quintanilla if she thought the concerns of north side residents were being nullified by the council’s slow uptake of an appropriate strategy to create a five-district solution.

“I think they have been more vocal recently, as they have been experiencing some of the growth,” Quintanilla said. “We are a city that has a lot of different components with business districts and residential (zones), and it’s important that we each have a voice and that we can be heard. That’s why I think it’s important for residents to be able to elect a person who lives in their region and who understands the issues. It’s not the same driving by a neighborhood as it is living there.”

While Measure B passed with a clear majority, it was only an advisory measure, and it’s possible the City Council could decide to keep the two-district status quo. If that happened, the only choice city residents would have to force a change is a citizen-led initiative. According to Anthony Mejia, the Palm Desert city clerk, that’s quite a complicated process.

“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,” Mejia said via email. “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.”

According to Mejia, the entire initiative process would most likely take between 195 and 255 days to complete.

While Quintanilla says the subcommittee is focused on how to move to five districts, not whether to move to five districts, it seems far from certain that the City Council will make such a move. We sent Soule this question via email: “Would you please ask the mayor directly if she will confirm that the express intent and commitment of the full City Council is to facilitate the creation of five electoral districts as requested by the voters in the city prior to the next general election in 2024?”

Mr. Soule responded via email: “Here is Mayor Kelly’s answer: We cannot make any statements about how the full council will respond to the voters’ preference until the matter comes before the full council for discussion. That is the essential process.”

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