The district

GLBT and business groups want downtown and Midtown to have just one city council member

Today, Sacramento’s central city is broken into three different city council districts. That dilutes the political power of the grid. But a movement to unify the urban core is gaining steam.

Today, Sacramento’s central city is broken into three different city council districts. That dilutes the political power of the grid. But a movement to unify the urban core is gaining steam.

Go to to watch video of the redistricting panel’s past meetings. The city also provides GIS tools for citizens to experiment with and submit proposed district maps.

In Sacramento we think about “the grid” as a distinct area, geographically and culturally. It’s where Sacramento’s night life is centered, where you find the great neighborhoods of century-old Victorians and equally old trees. It’s the home of an expanding restaurant district, a thriving gay and lesbian community, and where Second Saturday has taken root.

But when it comes to political representation at City Hall, Midtown and downtown are downright balkanized.

Consider Steve Hansen’s neighborhood, Alkali Flat. His address is in city council District 1, represented by Angelique Ashby. “But if I walk one block, I’m in a different district,” he explained—specifically District 3, represented by Councilman Steve Cohn. “But I’m still in the same neighborhood.” A few blocks south and he’s in another council district entirely, Councilman Rob Fong’s District 4.

Hansen thinks that fragmentation hurts his neighborhood. And he may be in a position to do something about it. He was recently appointed to the 15-member Sacramento Redistricting Citizens Advisory Committee that this summer will make recommendations to the city council on how to redraw the local district lines.

The redistricting process happens once every 10 years, following the U.S. Census. Just like congressional and state legislative districts, city council districts must be refigured to take into account population growth and changing demographics. The actual lines will be drawn by the Sacramento City Council later this year.

Where city leaders in the past have taken care to keep neighborhoods like Oak Park, Curtis Park, Land Park and Woodlake intact whenever they draw the boundaries of city council districts—the central city is sliced up like a pizza.

In each of the those districts, the vast majority of the votes, and the power, is out in the fat part, near the crust of the pizza slice—District 1 has Natomas, District 4 has Land Park, District 3 has East Sacramento.

That dilutes the political power of central city residents, or so the argument goes.

“If the person living across the street from you has a different council member, you can’t go together and say, ‘Hi, we’re your constituents.’ The political clout of the central city just doesn’t exist,” said Kim Alexander, director of the California Voter Foundation. She used to live in the Poverty Ridge neighborhood (around 21st and T).

While downtown gets lots of attention for its flashy projects and high-profile issues like the rail yards and K Street, it’s harder for neighborhoods to get the care and feeding they need, adds Hansen.

“Everybody wants to be there when there’s a groundbreaking. Nobody wants to be there when there’s a break-in,” he said.

Hansen and the other members of the redistricting commission will meet every Monday evening at City Hall until the end of June. You can go to the city’s website for agendas, and to watch video of past meetings. The city also provides software tools for citizens to experiment with and even submit their own proposed district maps. The deadline for citizen map submissions is May 16.

By the time the city council adopts new maps, likely in September, they will also have gotten an earful from downtown business interests, neighborhood activists, and gay and lesbian groups, who are making a push for the central city to be unified into one city council district.

“Right now, we are really a small percentage of much larger districts. We think this is an opportunity to have some leadership in the central city and have one unified voice,” said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, one of the most powerful supporters of unification.

Another vocal proponent is the Sacramento Rainbow Chamber of Commerce. Rosanna Herber, one of the people heading up the chamber’s redistricting effort, says this year the city has to recognize the GLBT population as a “community of interest” in the redistricting process.

The city’s redistricting criteria is governed by the California Elections Code, the federal Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The law requires the city to first draw districts that protect the principal of “one person, one vote.” That means every city council has to be more or less the same size. In 2011, the target is about 58,000 residents.

The city also has to draw districts that don’t discriminate against minority groups and that look out for other communities of interest.

The city’s website primer on redistricting gives school attendance areas, redevelopment areas, and even dog parks as examples of communities of interest.

Historically, however, the GLBT community has not been considered a community of interest for the purposes of redistricting. But a lot has changed since 2001, including court cases recognizing gays and lesbians as deserving the same protections against discrimination as other minority groups.

Herber and others argue that breaking up the central city into several council districts also dilutes the political power and representation of the gay and lesbian community.

The census doesn’t ask people for their sexual orientation, but aside from common sense, there is data suggesting that gays and lesbians—and gay-friendly neighborhoods—are concentrated in the central city. No area of the city voted more strongly against Proposition 8 than the grid.

“We’re not seeking to make the gayest district in the city,” said Herber. “We’re seeking to unite communities of interest.”

She also noted that there’s yet to be an openly gay representative on the Sacramento City Council. “We have some wonderful people on the council right now. They are our friends. But when they move on, it would be nice to run some one who is openly LGBT.”

Downtown is not the only area of the city likely to see redistricting controversy, because the neighborhood of Tahoe Park is split and may want to be put back together. There are heavily Latino neighborhoods in North Sac that might have more power if they were drawn into the same district. But downtown is likely to garner more attention by virtue of the clout of groups like the Downtown Partnership and simply because it’s a downtown and therefore known by all.

And it’s not the first time the central city has asked to be made whole. A movement to unify the central city following the 2000 census gained some traction. Mostly the impetus for the unification came from Midtown neighborhood associations and businesses.

But they didn’t get much of a hearing, says Alexander. “The city council appeared as if they wanted public input. But at the end of the day, they made decisions that were in their own best interest.”

This time the numbers may force more significant changes. District 1, which includes the booming Natomas suburbs, has grown to include more than 100,000 people, nearly double the population of any other council district. District 1 will have to contract, and will likely see its southern edge moved from downtown to somewhere around Interstate 80 in Natomas.

But as soon as you move one district line any significant distance, the whole map starts to behave like one of those diabolical sliding tile puzzles.

“I think it would be difficult to do,” said District 3 Councilman Steve Cohn of any effort to unify the central city. “You go from affecting three or four districts to affecting all of the districts.”

Cohn said another problem with unifying the central city is that right now it has three council members with a stake in the grid’s success. Change the lines, and the central city’s lone council member may find themselves the lonely vote for the interests of the urban core.

“The other council members might look at the central city as just one other district,” says Cohn.

Still, Cohn is open to the idea. “I’m up in the air right now,” Cohn said, but added, “If we’re going to do it, I think my district would make the most sense,” said Cohn, explaining that District 3, which already contains the biggest chunk of Midtown, may be best suited to take on the other grid neighborhoods.

But maybe Rob Fong in District 4 wants to hold on to his piece of downtown, or would rather have all of it. Or perhaps Sandy Sheedy in District 2 would like to see her north Sacramento district slide across the river and snatch up the downtown rail yards.

Kim Alexander believes the redistricting process ought to be taken out of city council members’ hands.

“Fundamentally, it’s a conflict of interest for politicians to draw their own council districts and then vote on them.”

This year, the citizens redistricting panel—which actually started with Councilman Kevin McCarty and Mayor Kevin Johnson, in a rare moment of agreement—is an attempt to give the public more input. But it remains to be seen whether unification of the central city will fare better than it did 10 years ago.

It ought to, Alexander says. “Midtown is the public face of Sacramento. It’s the social and cultural center of Sacramento. We need to make sure they can effectively represent their community.”