Districting drama

Issue turns partisan during map evaluation process

Demographer Michael Wagaman was put on the hot seat Tuesday for his past work with the Democratic Party.

Demographer Michael Wagaman was put on the hot seat Tuesday for his past work with the Democratic Party.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

While Michael Wagaman has been a demographer for more than 20 years, Tuesday night’s (Jan. 7) Chico City Council meeting that focused on districting was the first time his integrity was publicly questioned while doing such work, Wagaman told the CN&R.

The issue at hand: his background. Wagaman has worked for the California Democratic Party and for Assembly Democrats. It was an incendiary topic brought up by members of the public and conservative council members Kasey Reynolds and Sean Morgan. They questioned whether he could approach the job impartially.

The controversy played out after Wagaman presented six draft maps he’d created for the city’s switch to district-based elections. The council ultimately voted to see variations of four of them, but no final decisions were made.

Much of the public’s feedback directed criticism toward the council for asking Wagaman to include incumbency as a secondary factor in drawing the districts. Citizens from both sides of the political aisle asked the council to forgo considering incumbency at all.

Saulo Londono, chairman of the Butte County Republican Party, went so far as to allege that the city hired a “seasoned Democrat political operative” who kept Mayor Randall Stone in a district with “heavy partisan Democratic advantage” in order for him to “skate to victory” during the November 2020 election.

Morgan voiced similar concerns, noting how several of Stone and Councilwoman Ann Schwab’s proposed districts were drawn with what appears to be a “very strong Democratic majority.”

His comments were followed by City Attorney Andrew Jared noting that Wagaman was hired by the City Attorney’s Office with consultation from the council.

During further discussion at the dais, Councilman Scott Huber said he wasn’t aware of Wagaman’s background and didn’t see the conspiracy. He added that he believed most of the maps did a decent job of keeping some very obvious neighborhoods together.

Stone asked Wagaman to respond to the gerrymandering allegation, to which the consultant replied that he did not look at the partisan makeup of Chico’s voter districts when drawing the maps. Stone said he suspected the claims were “flatly false” and requested Wagaman bring that data forward after the council chooses a map.

Reynolds made a motion to suspend the process and find a different demographer that appears to be “in the middle of the road.” But that failed, falling along party lines.

During his presentation, Wagaman said he drew the maps using criteria such as the South Campus, Avenues, Barber Yard and Chapman/Mulberry neighborhoods (the latter of which will be incorporated before the election), as well as Highway 99, to create the lines, then factored in incumbency secondarily.

Several speakers voiced their preference of one of Wagaman’s maps (plan Yellow) that was nearly identical to one drawn and submitted by Bryce Goldstein, a local planner who serves on the Chico Planning Commission. (The plans are named after colors, to avoid an appearance of preference.)

Goldstein said she was disappointed in Wagaman’s maps overall because they seem to favor incumbency over the distinct, unique neighborhoods of Chico.

“I really think it’s important to have these low-income, pollution-burdened areas that are also ethnically diverse, like in Chapmantown, have better representation, and I think that favoring incumbents kind of goes against the goal,” she said.

Ultimately, the council provided direction. Councilman Karl Ory requested amendments to two maps (plans Purple and Orange) to change boundary lines to reflect districts similar to those for the Butte County Board of Supervisors, and Morgan requested alterations on two other maps (plans Green and Blue) to change where districts crossed Highway 99 and to not include incumbency as a factor.

The next hearing will be on Jan. 21. The plan is for the council to choose a map then in order to comply with California Voting Rights Act requirements. Go to tinyurl.com/ChicoDistricts for more info.

Also on Tuesday, the council discussed broadening the state’s Tenant Protection Act, which created “just cause” eviction requirements starting Jan. 1. The Internal Affairs Committee (IAC) recommended extending the act to all properties in Chico.

But after a lengthy conversation, the issue stalled, getting punted back to the IAC. More specifically, the committee will further weigh whether to extend the law’s just cause stipulations to owner-occupied units, accessory dwelling units and units 15 years old or newer, which are current exceptions under the law. This appeared to be prompted by concerns from those in the housing industry.

The council did vote, however, to broaden the law by not requiring one-year’s residency for just cause protections to apply. The city also will look into creating a rental registry with information such as prices and eviction history in order to better enforce rental violations.

That night, local celebrity Mike Griffith, or Mike G, also received some good news for his business, G-Ride Pedicab. The City Council voted 5-0 (with Schwab and Reynolds recused) to change the city’s noise ordinance to be complaint-driven rather than proactively enforced downtown. This makes a difference for Griffith because he’s received about 10 tickets in the past year for playing music while operating his pedicab downtown.

Griffith said he loves what the city came up with. He told the council he is cognizant of what he plays and where—he turns his music down near certain places, like the Blue Room Theatre, for example, and never plays offensive songs.

“You gotta experience what I experience when I ride. … The whole community dances,” he said. “I never would have thought when I was homeless and using drugs … I would have a job that I love and the whole community would support me from everywhere.”