A push to fix Sacramento’s blurred political lines
A proposed independent redistricting commission would create new city map boundaries—but can it withstand political meddling?
On May 24, Sacramento City Council will consider placing a measure on the November ballot to create an independent redistricting commission that could alter the landscape of local elections for generations to come.
The commission would mirror the model used by cities like Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego. Its process would differ vastly from Sacramento’s last round of redistricting, following the 2010 census, which left many frustrated and angry with both procedure and results.
But at a time when political districts are still largely carved up by politicians and their chosen proxies, will the proposed measure actually push Sacramento toward an accountable future—or just pull the city back to its favor-trading past?
In 2011, an advisory committee, which included then-future Councilman Steve Hansen, created four maps that would have made significant changes to the city’s makeup, including expanding the boundaries of District 2. The committee faced scrutiny and criticisms of political maneuvering and cronyism, however—as well as the accusations that one of the proposed maps had been submitted by an anonymous author, later determined to be Hansen.
Ultimately, the city council went with its own map, which scrapped those expanded District 2 lines.
Back then, critics like Erik Smitt, policy director for the local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, accused the council of gerrymandering—manipulating district lines for political benefit.
“I believe they did not follow the law,” said Smitt, who contended that his group had prepared maps sensitive to the Latino and African-American communities. He said the council’s final map segmented those communities.
Now comes a plan for a new redistricting commission with the power to create district boundaries, one of many government reforms the city and community groups have debated over the past 18 months. New district lines wouldn’t likely be drawn until after the 2020 census. But the stakes are still high.
“If this doesn’t pass, we go back to the old system, which is the council gets to draw its own district lines,” said Nicolas Heidorn, policy and legislation attorney for California Common Cause.
“Whenever the council is drawing its own lines, it’ll be a much more political process,” he added. “It doesn’t open up as many avenues for the public to have input and say in terms of what happens. We think that the commission process is both fairer and a more inclusive way of drawing the lines.”
But will commission members truly be independent, or just one degree of separation from the politicians who hand-picked them?
The idea of independent redistricting has been gathering momentum throughout California, first with the passage of Proposition 11 in 2008, which mandated that the state use an autonomous commission with power to draw lines for state legislative districts. Likewise, Proposition 20 in 2010 established the same process in California for congressional seats.
Cities like San Francisco and San Diego created independent redistricting commissions in 2001 and 1992, respectively. Oakland followed suit in 2014.
Los Angeles and San Jose also have similar commissions, though they’re strictly advisory.
Mayor Kevin Johnson helped initiate Sacramento’s advisory committee, whose work was disregarded at a contentious July 26, 2011, city council meeting where then-councilors Steve Cohn and Sandy Sheedy each introduced their own maps.
Cohn put forth his map because he said the other maps proposed by the committee broke up neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Sheedy said she had concerns that the advisory committee didn’t draw appropriate lines for a drainage canal north of the American River and the “poorest neighborhoods in the city.”
For his part, Johnson objected to the council’s decision to move the UCD Med Center out of Councilman Jay Schenirer’s District 5 and into District 6.
The council voted to tentatively adopt its own map two weeks later on August 9.
City residents responded swiftly and in vast numbers, decrying the entire process.
Through a public records request, SN&R obtained dozens of letters of protest written in the aftermath of that meeting, including one from an angry East Sacramento resident who questioned why it was “less important” to keep Oak Park together than other neighborhoods.
Likewise, an Oak Park resident wrote a letter complaining about the boundary change that would move Sacramento High School into another district.
Not everyone was unhappy, however.
A UCD Med Center nurse and Elmhurst resident in District 6 praised the changes for the way they might positively affect the neighborhood’s traffic, parking, public safety and expansion.
In September 2011, city council voted 6-3 to approve its map, with Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, Schenirer and Johnson opposing.
Johnson has since attempted to reverse that defeat, first via Measure L, his 2014 strong-mayor initiative, which included language about transparency, ethics, accountability and redistricting.
Two days after voters rejected Measure L, Johnson created a Good Governance ad hoc committee, which was tasked with government reform and made up of councilors Allen Warren, Ashby and Schenirer.
Johnson requested that the three look at creating a neighborhood advisory committee, an ethics code and committee with a sunshine ordinance, and an independent redistricting commission and budget analyst.
But some critics—including many city residents—were unhappy with the outcome. Ethics committee or not, they said, the power would still rest with the mayor.
In a letter to Hansen obtained by SN&R, one resident asked the council member to form a redistricting commission with more citizen oversight, “one in which educated citizens can look over the districts and new census data and ensure that the needs of the citizens are being met in each area.”
In December 2014, Johnson and Schenirer successfully put UCD Med Center back in District 5. Council voted 6-2 in support, with Hansen and Jeff Harris in opposition.
Even so, there remained a push for moving Sacramento toward independent redistricting.
After the city’s ad hoc committee formed, the Sacramento chapter of the League of Women Voters and Eye on Sacramento organized 10 public forums that were held in 2015.
These forums attracted Heidorn, a political veteran. Among other things, Heidorn worked on Proposition 11 as Common Cause staff in 2008. He also took part in Oakland’s redistricting effort.
Heidorn initially joined the coalition as a volunteer and then as paid staff for Common Cause. Soon, the Sacramento coalition looked to incorporate some of the elements of Oakland’s redistricting model.
These elements include a random selection process for coalition members and the rule that members can’t serve if they have conflicts of interest. Commission members also can’t work for an elected official for at least four years thereafter and can’t run for public office for a decade.
That last rule would’ve precluded three members from the 2011 Sacramento redistricting committee from running for office in the past few years, including Hansen, who replaced Rob Fong in the 2014 election.
Last summer, at the urging of the ad hoc committee, Heidorn, Paula Lee of the League of Women Voters and former Fair Political Practice Commission enforcement chief Gary Winuk arranged a meeting with City Clerk Shirley Concolino, City Attorney James Sanchez and other city staff.
The coalition wanted the city to institute some of the things Johnson had promised in 2014: independent redistricting, a sunshine ordinance for transparency, an updated code of ethics and an enforcement commission for ethics. They knew they might not get everything, with Heidorn telling SN&R, “It’s a negotiated process.”
In September the ad hoc committee presented its findings to city council. In the days before, the city announced plans to institute everything the coalition requested.
Now, eight of the 13 redistricting commissioners would be chosen either by the ethics commission or a three-member selection panel whose members would be selected by the city attorney. Those redistricting commissioners would then choose the remaining five commissioners and two alternates, with a three-quarter vote and public meetings required for this process.
As such, the city will still effectively shape the political tone of the committee, but once the commissioners are selected, they arguably have the power to draw lines, regardless of city council’s wishes.
Critics, like Smitt of Eye on Sacramento, aren’t wholly satisfied. The ethics commission will lack enforcement power and is “toothless,” he says.
Smitt also questioned the city’s use of ad hoc committees, which can meet privately.
“I see no reason in the world to hide what goes on in government from reporters and the public,” Smitt said.
Schenirer, however, argues that the new committee meets the citizen coalition’s suggestion to use the state’s independent redistricting model.
“What we tried to do for the work is take the politics out of redistricting, and I believe the recommendation does that,” Schenirer said.
Concolino agreed, telling SN&R, “It’s just better business. It’s best practices.”
Now, city staff is still working to formulate much of the package of government reforms. It released its draft ordinance for the redistricting commission, the first part of the package, ahead of an April meeting for its Law and Legislation Committee. Heidorn’s group recommended 15 amendments, nine of which were accepted. He said council should pass the ordinance.
“It’s got independence,” Heidorn said. “It’s got the power to draw the lines. It’s got requirements to insure that only people who are impartial serve on the commission. It’s got strong requirements … to insure that impartiality. And it’s got good criteria for drawing the lines. So in terms of redistricting, I think this is an extremely strong proposal.”
Once a redistricting commission with independent power is in the city charter, the council can’t do anything to change it short of another ballot measure to amend the charter.
“It’s kind of the gold standard for independence,” Heidorn said.
For now, Smitt will take a wait-and-see approach. The new redistricting proposal is better—at least for one key reason.
“The decision is taken out of the hands of the politicians.” Smitt says.“It seems to have come through the political process relatively unscathed so, time to move on.”