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19 Mar 2020

Redistricting Interrupted? Palm Desert Attempts to Move Ahead With New Election Districts as the Pandemic Reality Sets In

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One of the city’s preferred proposed redistricting maps. One of the city’s preferred proposed redistricting maps.

At noon on March 17, the city of Palm Desert’s public information officer, David Hermann, issued a statement with the headline “Palm Desert Declares Local Emergency—Temporarily Closes City Hall.”

“In response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and rapidly evolving public health guidelines, City Manager Lauri Aylaian on Tuesday announced the declaration of a local emergency in Palm Desert,” the statement read. “Palm Desert City Hall and other municipal facilities are closed, effective at noon on March 17, and will remain closed pending a public health risk re-evaluation on April 3.”

On this crazy day, Hermann—displaying an impressive degree of professionalism—also took the time to respond to a few inquiries the Independent made regarding the status of the Palm Desert district-creation process for upcoming elections.

To recap: Palm Desert residents Karina Quintanilla and Lorraine Salas sued the city, accusing Palm Desert of not complying with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. Similar lawsuits have forced cities across the state, including several in the Coachella Valley, to switch from at-large to district-based election systems. Quintanilla and Salas reached a preliminary settlement at the end of 2019—launching a public-participatory process.

That process began with an open-house presentation on Jan. 15, including a somewhat-misleading characterization: The city presented the creation of a system with just two districts as pretty much a done deal, which was not the case.

There was another, more-candid open-house presentation in February, followed by a public hearing in City Council chambers on March 12.

Then the pandemic reality arrived.

After one more public hearing, scheduled for March 26—during which remote input is allowed via cityofpalmdesert.org—the city has scheduled its final public hearing for April 16, when the City Council is slated to select the district map that could define the structure of electoral representation for the foreseeable future. (It is worth mentioning the plaintiffs have approval rights over the district boundaries in order for the lawsuit to be settled.)

The Independent reached out to Hermann to ask if the city has considered postponing the rest of this process until the COVID-19 threat has subsided.

“A postponement is not feasible given deadlines for the November election and the settlement agreement’s requirement that districts be in place for that election,” Hermann replied.

Of course, things are changing by the day, and it’s possible the city and plaintiffs could indeed agree to delay implementation of the district system, given the unprecedented circumstances. But as of this writing, the process is racing ahead toward that April 16 due date.

As of the March 12 public hearing, 10 maps had been submitted for consideration. Seven of them came from five different residents, while three were created by the National Demographics Corporation—a third-party vendor experienced in electoral district-map creation hired by the city—to reflect the city’s input.

At that next-to-last public hearing scheduled for March 26, at least two more map submissions will be considered as well.

All of the maps so far call for the creation of just two districts: One encompassing 20 percent of the city’s population in a majority-Latino area, with the other district encompassing the other 80 percent of the city’s population. The first district would be represented on the City Council by one member, while the second district will elect four members. No maps have yet been submitted illustrating three, four or five districts.

During the public-comment period of the March 12 meeting, Quintanilla expressed concerns that the online map-creation tool provided by the city was not intuitive or easy to utilize, even for someone as digitally savvy as she considers herself to be; as a result, she had not been able to submit the five-district option she would like to see implemented. Councilmember Kathleen Kelly suggested that instructional support be provided to residents if possible.

The Independent asked Hermann if map submissions could still be made. He replied: “Maps for City Council consideration have to be submitted prior to the March 26th hearing.” So that leaves residents, including Quintanilla, without much time—all while dealing with the uncertainty and distress of the pandemic threat.

On multiple occasions, Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation, has mentioned at public sessions that whatever district boundaries are adopted by the city will likely need to be redrawn next year based on the results of the 2020 Census. However, Hermann said this is not by any means a certainty.

“The districting map will only be adjusted in 2021 if it proves to lack the requisite population balance,” Hermann clarified.

What happens next? Stay tuned.

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