Sacramento city council aims to resolve boundary issues through new redistricting commission

Remembering 2011, the council votes unanimously to surrender authority to voters

Local governments aren’t typically known for giving up power, but Sacramento’s leaders just relinquished some, voting to allow residents the chance to enact a new commission with authority to redraw the city’s embattled political districts.

The move, which the city council passed unanimously July 26, follows an old debate over whether the current approach to redistricting empowers elected officials to shift financial influences, splice struggling neighborhoods or pound a wedge through the voting power of marginalized communities. Voters will get the opportunity to approve the commission in November.

When council members faced the task of altering Sacramento’s voting landscape in 2011, they heard concerns that Sacramento’s Latino community was being unfairly fractured by a new district map. That wasn’t the only flare-up: A clash over where the UCD Med Center was anchored, along with concerns about a lack ownership of Stockton Boulevard, also became part of the long motorcade of discontentment.

One champion for Sacramento’s new independent redistricting commission is District 6 Councilman Eric Guerra, who says he was inspired to run for office by how the issue was handled.

At the time, the city had formed a volunteer citizens advisory committee to direct council members on how to fairly represent various neighborhoods. A perception surfaced, however, that some of the committee’s members were steered by political biases and demonstrated a lack of transparency around at least one of the maps it produced. The committee submitted its final report to council members on July 6, 2011. To what extent its volunteer members’ contributions were ignored by the city council is still debated, though four of the five maps submitted went nowhere. A week after that gathering, Sacramento’s elected officials unveiled their own redistricting plan and at the next council meeting the past and current presidents of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce warned council members they were proceeding in direction that would dilute the voting power of the city’s Latino and African-American communities. Between that meeting and the next, more than 150 residents expressed similar concerns during public comment.

Guerra was part of the Latino Working Group at the time and witnessed the consternation firsthand.

“The group I was involved with back then identified that there was essentially a major part of the Latino community that had been historically disenfranchised because of gerrymandering,” Guerra said. “The citizens advisory committee … came up with four proposed district maps that would have addressed that. The council threw out all of it … That really frustrated the Latino community.”

Eye on Sacramento President Craig Powell remembers the outcry after the council passed its own redistricting agenda.

“For the next few weeks after that, the protesters totally jammed the council chamber, its lobby and the front of City Hall,” Powell said.

In an attempt to avoid future clashes, the city formed a new public committee to work with its attorneys on framing the Independent Redistricting Act. California Common Cause, the Sacramento League of Women Voters and the League of United Latin American Citizens each gave significant input. Those groups now strongly endorse the ordinance that council members passed last month.

District 4 Councilman Steve Hansen, who was part of the troubled 2011 volunteer advisory committee before he ran for office, says previous redistricting efforts led to a situation where “the politics got very personal” but the council’s latest vote, however, rights those wrongs.

“The new commission makes the redistricting process truly independent,” Hansen said. “It gives the voters a reason to feel that the issue has truly been taken out of the hands of the elected officials.”

Local watchdog groups still worry about how the redistricting commission will be assembled, however, especially if the city hasn’t finalized its ethics committee by the time the commissioners are selected.

“If there is no ethics committee in place when the commissioners are picked, then the current ordinance is hyperspecific about who would qualify to be on a three-person panel to select the commissioners,” Powell said.

Powell says he would have recommended a different approach.

“It would have been better to stipulate that if there is no ethics committee in place, then the three-person panel picking the commissioners would all be retired judges,” he said.