Supervisors ignore pleas, split Barber neighborhood

Unwilling to take time to consider alternatives

Many residents of the Barber neighborhood in southwest Chico are in shock this week, after their passionate last-ditch effort to keep their neighborhood in a single county supervisorial district failed Tuesday.

The Board of Supervisors voted, 3-2, on a motion by Supervisor Larry Wahl, to approve a redistricting plan that splits off about half the neighborhood, which historically has been in his westside District 2, and puts it in the more rural District 4, which includes Gridley and Biggs.

The board doesn’t need to complete redistricting until Nov. 1, and nobody said there wasn’t time to consider alternatives provided by the public. Board Chairman Steve Lambert and District 3 Supervisor Maureen Kirk wanted to do just that, but District 5 Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi and District 1 Supervisor Bill Connelly said they’d heard enough and voted with Wahl, thwarting the hopes of Barber residents and putting an end, at least for now, to one of the more remarkable expressions of public sentiment in recent memory.

It began a couple of weeks ago, when residents of the Barber neighborhood became aware that the supervisors were zeroing in on a redistricting map designed by Wahl—called Option 4—that would split their neighborhood into two districts.

That option had been presented to the supervisors just before their last redistricting hearing, on June 14, although it doesn’t appear on the county website’s redistricting hearing schedule until July 12.

At the July 5 meeting of the Chico City Council, several dozen Barber neighborhood residents showed up and convinced five of the council’s seven members to support sending a letter to the supervisors asking them to slow down the redistricting process and give people more time to participate. Adding urgency to the request was the fact that the board was scheduled to vote on Option 4 the following week, at its July 12 meeting.

Following that July 5 council meeting, Mayor Ann Schwab quickly organized an informal town-hall meeting for Monday, July 11, a day before the supervisors’ meeting. Despite the short notice, council chambers were packed for the two-hour confab. With only a few exceptions, everyone in attendance was opposed to splitting the Barber neighborhood.

Two supervisors, Lambert and Wahl, were in attendance, as were County Clerk Candace Grubbs and Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn. Speaker after speaker told them they simply hadn’t known about the redistricting process. When Lambert and Grubbs insisted the meetings has been fully noticed in local media, speakers pointed out that, for the first three hearings, only four people showed up. “How can you say that’s good notification?” a woman asked rhetorically.

The Wahl-backed Measure A loomed behind much of the discussion. The Barber neighborhood voted against the measure by more than 80 percent. Many in attendance seemed convinced that, by cutting 1,500 mostly liberal voters from his district, Wahl was again trying to manipulate the process to reduce the voting power of liberals and, specifically, improve his re-election prospects.

As one speaker, Eleanor Anderson, put it, the tactic has two methods: “packing and cracking.” Either you pack a district with friendly voters, or you crack a district that has too many unfriendly voters. Wahl, she implied, was doing the latter.

Jim Jessee, a retired Chico State administrator whose family has deep farming roots in the county, addressed Wahl directly. “We don’t trust you, Larry,” he said. He accused Wahl of being part of a nationwide effort to disenfranchise liberal voters.

Wahl had defenders. Mary Kennedy, who lives in Nord, in District 2, and was Wahl’s pick to serve on the county Planning Commission, said it was natural for District 2 to be composed of both rural and urban elements. “That’s the way it is. That’s the way lines are drawn.”

Another woman, “speaking as an old farmer,” reminded people that they still had City Council members they could go to, whereas county residents had only their supervisors. “I really don’t think you have a lot to complain about,” she said.

The ostensible goal of redistricting is to create districts of equal population—in this case, 44,000—once every 10 years, following the census, that are similar in terms of topography, geography, cohesiveness, contiguity, integrity and compactness of territory, as well as communities of interest, according to state codes.

The problem the county faces is that, since the last census, District 3 has grown faster than any other and needs to shed 5,200 voters to get close to 44,000.

Option 4 puts some of those voters, residents of northwest Chico, in Wahl’s westside District 2. It then sheds residents by giving them to District 4. There was much talk at both meetings of “communities of interest” and how that was exactly what the Barber neighborhood was. Ditto the Chapman neighborhood, which will see its Mulberry district split off from District 2 to District 4, as well.

But that’s not what the supervisors were looking for. Instead, they wanted every district to be like the county as a whole: part urban and part rural.

So the issue became how to do that. So far the county has produced four maps—Options 1 through 4—and Chico resident Mike Worley has produced another, Option 5, that would make District 2 largely urban in nature. At Tuesday’s meeting there was general agreement on the board that Option 5 was unworkable, but Kirk wanted to take another look at Option 1, which with some tweaking, she suggested, might solve the problems of Option 4.

“If somebody has a plan that’s fair and doesn’t break up neighborhoods, we should consider it,” she said.

Lambert agreed, saying “I don’t see the urgency to rush through this process.”

However Wahl, who earlier had argued that Option 4, “as far as splitting areas of interest, was not splitting anything,” and that changing districts meant only that residents had to learn a new supervisor’s name and phone number, moved to approve it, and the vote was taken. It will come up for a final hearing and approval on July 26. Unless Connelly, Yamaguchi or Wahl changes his mind, it’s a done deal.

Opponents of Option 4 seemed stunned by the board’s refusal to let them get involved in the process. “How can they do that?” asked Maria Phillips, who owns property in the Barber neighborhood. As she knew, the question contained its own answer.