At least for now, Menlo Park's governing body will stay a five-member council, but each council member will in the future have to come from the district he or she lives in, under new rules the City Council signed off on this week.
The Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously March 21 to accept a map splitting the city into five different voting districts, which had been developed by the city's Advisory Districting Committee. The map breaks the city down into five districts:
● District 1: Belle Haven and everything east of U.S. 101;
● District 2: The Willows, Flood Triangle and Suburban Park;
● District 3: Vintage Oaks, Felton Gables, Linfield Oaks, the Caltrain line and a northern segment of El Camino Real;
● District 4: Downtown, Allied Arts and a southern segment of El Camino Real; and
● District 5: the remaining area of west Menlo Park, including Sharon Heights and Stanford Hills.
The committee, according to city staff, met eight times over six weeks and looked at more than 40 draft maps. It used as its criteria state and federal laws, traditional neighborhood boundaries, efforts to divide the population fairly, and visual cohesion, among other considerations such as where there are major roads, schools, and renter versus owner households.
Staff notes that the committee also gave consideration to how the boundaries might affect the ability of incumbents or other likely candidates to run for office.
Menlo Park is under pressure to comply with a lawsuit threat received in August from Kevin Shenkman, an attorney at Shenkman and Hughes, a Malibu-based law firm. He was representing an unnamed plaintiff and alleged that Menlo Park's at-large voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act because it makes it harder for candidates preferred by African American and Latino voters to get elected.
One challenge to the proposed district boundaries came from the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce. Fran Dehn, chamber president and CEO, said that she wanted the line between districts three and four revised so that District 3 has more say over the Caltrain line. She also asked that the downtown section be extended from Crane Street to University Drive.
Advisory districting member Michael Cohen, speaking for himself rather than as a committee member, noted in public comment that to comply with districting law, which says that the population can't vary more than 10 percent among districts, other district lines would have to be changed. Doing so could result in an "ugly carve-out" in either direction, he said.
Ultimately, while not all council members agreed the plan was perfect, they conceded that the proposed district boundaries were workable, given the tight time frame under which the city must work to finalize the district boundaries.
Councilman Peter Ohtaki suggested splitting districts 3 and 4 along Santa Cruz Avenue instead of El Camino Real.
"I don't want to send it back and cause more work at this point," Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said. "It seems to be OK the way it is."
"We want to make sure we stay on our timeline," said Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, noting that lines will have to be redrawn following the completion of the 2020 census anyway.
Five districts, five council members
The decision to split the city into five districts means forgoing the other option for structuring the council: creating six districts and having an at-large elected mayor.
More council members means longer council meetings, pointed out Mayor Peter Ohtaki.
"I think we do pretty well," he said, adding that he'd be open to revisiting the topic if the city experiences a substantial increase in population.
Moving forward, according to Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver, the council is scheduled to have more mandatory public hearings. The first is scheduled for April 17 to introduce the ordinance, and another is scheduled for April 24 to finalize the ordinance. Then, the plan is to submit the finalized maps to the San Mateo County Elections Office May 1.
Advisory Districting Committee member Max Heim said that when he began working on the committee to draw the district boundaries, he thought it was a daunting task, but ultimately, he was "proud of what we accomplished in a short period of time" and considered it a good example of "civic engagement" and "democracy in action."
Julie Shanson, a member of Belle Haven Action, said she supported the five-district option because it "puts everyone in the neighborhood they think they're in."
Which districts vote first?
One big question is the sequencing of the elections. In 2018, the terms for three incumbents are up: Rich Cline, Peter Ohtaki and Kirsten Keith. The council followed the districting committee's recommendations and voted to hold elections for districts 1, 2, and 4 in 2018 and for districts 3 and 5 in 2020. Currently, council members Cline and Ohtaki live in District 4 and council members Catherine Carlton and Ray Mueller live in District 5.
The council agreed to prioritize elections for District 1 because that is the problem area for which the city is facing the litigation threat – the letter from Mr. Shenkman argues that no Latino has ever run for City Council and that, in 2016, African American candidate Cecilia Taylor lost the election despite being preferred by Latino and African American voters.
One outcome of the council's decision is that District 3, which is currently vacant, will not have a representative until 2020, although there is at least one person interested in running for the seat: Jennifer Wolosin, founder of the city's "Parents for Safe Routes" group, has filed preliminary paperwork indicating interest in running for office. She confirmed with The Almanac that she would run if the seat were open.
Another potential impact of the switch to districts, noted Councilman Rich Cline, is that council members typically must recuse themselves from any matter that involves a site less than 500 feet away from their home. In other words, there could be a scenario in which the sole representative of an area that could be affected by a council decision can't vote on the matter because he or she lives too close.