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21 Feb 2020

Clarifying Boundaries: Palm Desert Residents Now Have a Chance to Offer Input on the City's New Election Districts

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Douglas Johnson (seated in suit and tie), president of the National Demographics Corporation, listens as Karina Quintanilla shares her thoughts at the Feb. 12 forum. Douglas Johnson (seated in suit and tie), president of the National Demographics Corporation, listens as Karina Quintanilla shares her thoughts at the Feb. 12 forum. Kevin Fitzgerald

After enjoying pizza and salad compliments of the city of Palm Desert, more than 100 residents—including the two plaintiffs in the ongoing legal process spawned by the city’s previous failure to move from at-large elections to district-based elections—convened on Feb. 12 for the “Public Open House No. 2: A Conversation About District Boundaries for City Elections” at the Palm Desert Community Center.

During a similar January event, city officials implied that a new elections system with just two districts was a foregone conclusion—even though it was not, as we learned in subsequent conversations with the city attorney and an unhappy plaintiff in the lawsuit, based on the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. However, city representatives at the Feb. 12 gathering were, at times, more candid, with more of an effort made to explain the steps involved in the city’s adoption of the lawsuit settlement.

Still, remarks and presentations made by City Manager Lauri Aylaian and Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation—hired by the city to help facilitate the creation of the districts—were met by shared groans and chuckles from residents in attendance, who seemed skeptical of the assertions being made.

After the meeting, Karina Quintanilla, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the city, said she was pleased by the turnout. She and her co-litigant, Lorraine Salas, agreed to the preliminary settlement, they said, to save the city from an expensive court fight, in hopes that city residents would speak up in the mandated public forums—and that’s what happened at the Feb. 12 gathering.

“My impression was that the residents are trying to hold the city accountable for what (the city’s) intent is in pressing for only two districts,” Quintanilla said. “It made me feel pleased, because what Lorraine and I intended was to have the settlement foster community engagement and people to voice their opinions. It was wonderful to see that. It was great to be able to speak to a couple of the residents and give them my firsthand (input) on our decision to settle, as well as our commitment to continue to work for five districts.

“But during the Q&A portion of the meeting,” Quintanilla continued, “I was very displeased that, when City Manager Aylaian was asked, ‘Who proposed two districts?’ she mischaracterized (our position) and implied that we had proposed having only two districts That’s why I made sure to speak up and clarify that we never made that decision.”

Johnson urged residents to construct their own election-district maps and submit them to the City Council via the NDC’s online platform. (Residents can also print out a hard copy of their map and send it to the City Council.) We reached out to the city’s public information officer, David Hermann, via email to ask how seriously the council would consider any resident proposals.

“Residents may submit two-district or five-district maps,” Hermann replied. “The five-district maps will be kept in the records and provided to council, but only processed and posted if council directs that they be processed.” In other words, according to Hermann, the City Council retains the right to dismiss any residents’ proposals out of hand: There is no requirement that the council share proposals with the plaintiffs or other city residents.

In response to another question, Hermann said district plans could not be put up to a vote by residents because of a lack of time: “Plaintiffs wanted a solution implemented in time for the November 2020 council elections.”

Quintanilla clarified her and Salas’ intentions with the settlement.

“(The final settlement agreement proposal from the City Council) was so terrible that we just decided there was no point to dragging out things behind closed doors,” Quintanilla said. “So, one of the results was to bring it out (in front of the public), but we did not say, ‘Let’s get this over with and get on to the election.’ That was, by far, not our intent.”

While Quintanilla was heartened by the public turnout at the Feb. 12 meeting, she was disappointed by what she perceived as an unnecessarily confrontational stance taken by city representatives toward the plaintiffs and inquiring residents.

“Many of us found it to be a derogatory expression when they kept saying that it was a ‘tsunami of changes’ coming through (as a result of the Voting Rights Act non-compliance lawsuit),” Quintanilla said. “Is it really a tsunami, which is a devastating, terrible natural disaster? Is democracy a natural disaster? How is civic engagement a natural disaster? Change is not a bad thing.”

As for those map proposals: Quintanilla said she and Salas definitely planned on submitting a five-district map to the city for consideration.

“Now that we’ve been to the meeting and seen the (map-creation) tools that were presented, we’re going to submit a map,” she said. “We want to have the discussion be about, ‘What is the goal for the city of Palm Desert?’ Is it all about El Paseo and beautification? That is not what defines a city. The city (representatives) have said repeatedly that the (advantage) of having the ‘at-large’ council was to preserve unity, community and working together. So, how does creating two or more districts impede that?”

Palm Desert residents who desire more information about the ongoing process, offered from the plaintiffs’ point of view, can go to the Facebook page created by Quintanilla: www.facebook.com/District1PalmDesert. Residents who would like to take advantage of the Palm Desert district-map creation digital tools may visit www.representpd.org.

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