After considering nearly 40 maps and spending hours in intensive meetings held over the past month, Menlo Park's nine-member Advisory Districting Committee voted Feb. 22 in favor of two final maps to recommend to the City Council for approval: one with five districts, the other with six. The committee also voted unanimously to recommend the council move forward with a five-district election plan.
The district maps are intended to divide the city fairly, and the boundaries must be finalized by the November election if the city of Menlo Park is to avoid a threatened lawsuit. The threatened suit alleges that the city violates the California Voting Rights Act because its at-large election system in which all voters may vote for any council candidate makes it harder to elect minority candidates.
One argument committee members presented in favor of map 5-007b is that it would have boundaries in which three districts would touch El Camino Real, which could yield a council with a greater stake in addressing problems on the city's El Camino Real corridor.
Ultimately, though, the lines in map 5-007a made the districts more compact and visually coherent, committee members said, while also complying with state and federal requirements.
The committee issued a memo indicating how it reached its conclusions. According to the statement, the committee's primary criteria were to comply with the federal and state voting rights laws, respect existing neighborhood boundaries, balance population reasonably fairly, and make logical visual sense.
Secondary criteria were factors like school attendance areas, compactness, areas with shared neighborhood problems, clear boundaries such as main roads, how district boundaries might affect incumbents, and a district's possible makeup of homeowners versus renters or residents of single-family versus multi-family housing.
Go to is.gd/district468 to access the memo.
Five or six?
The committee was tasked with coming up with recommendations for a five- and a six-district city. But it was clear that after deliberations, members favored a five-district alternative, and ultimately voted unanimously to recommend to the City Council that it go with five districts.
Following through on its commitment, though, the committee gathered six votes in map 6-007b.
Belle Haven resident Pam Jones said she objected to a six-district system because it could dilute the voting power of the Belle Haven district being created.
With six districts, the city would also have a separately elected mayor.
"I don't believe it's good for Menlo Park to go that route," said Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform, an election reform nonprofit, and someone who has been following the matter closely.
Committee member Michael Hoff suggested recommending a six-district option with clear problems, or one that would put two council incumbents in the same district, in order to discourage the council from adopting a six-district plan. The council could be inherently biased toward a six-district system if it allows members to keep their seats, pointed out committee member Mike Cohen.
The other major question the committee was tasked with answering is which districts will be subject to an election first.
Ultimately, the committee voted 8-0-1, with committee member Michael Hoff abstaining, that under the recommended five-district map, the city could have elections for three seats in 2018 for districts 1, 2 and 4.
The District 1 seat is currently vacant, and District 2's seat is currently occupied by Councilwoman Kirsten Keith; two current council members, Rich Cline and Peter Ohtaki, live in District 4.
In 2020, the city would then hold elections for the seats for District 3 which is currently vacant and District 5; council members Catherine Carlton and Ray Mueller live in that district.
Under that plan, District 3 would not have representation until 2020, even though there is at least one Menlo Park resident of that district interested in running for the position: Jennifer Wolosin, founder of Parents for Safe Routes. She has already filed a document with the city indicating she plans to start collecting campaign funds, up to $2,000.
"In the event that the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to be prepared," she told the Almanac. She said she has been meeting with local leaders and others in the community over coffee and telling people she's considering running for council, noting, "I don't think I'll stop doing that even if elections are pushed back two years."
She added: "I don't see how this whole lack of representation could have been avoided, given this transition period, but it remains to be seen how this will play out. I don't know if those who live in District 3 realize the implication of what's about to happen to them in terms of having a voice."
With six districts, the sequencing would be more complicated. In 2018, the city would hold elections for one two-year term and three four-year terms. It would hold an election for a two-year term for District 3, and four-year-term elections for districts 1, 2, and 4, plus a mayor. Then, in 2020, the District 3 seat would be up for re-election along with the seats in districts 5 and 6 for a four-year term.
The committee's deliberations, according to Ms. Jones, "represented the best part of democracy."
The Menlo Park City Council is tentatively scheduled to review the district maps on March 13, but the matter may be postponed due to expected council absences, according to interim City Clerk Clay Curtin.