Menlo Park's next voting boundaries, set to last until 2030, will be decided by an unelected commission with no City Council oversight or input, in a decision the council reached following a tense discussion.
The Menlo Park City Council split 3-2, with Mayor Drew Combs and Councilman Ray Mueller opposed, over the decision to create an independent redistricting commission to redraw the boundaries of the city's five City Council districts based on the new 2020 U.S. Census data.
Menlo Park's newly created Independent Redistricting Commission will be made up of seven commissioners and two alternates and will have to hold at least four public hearings throughout their process to draw updated voting boundaries.
They alone will be responsible for developing the new voting boundaries; a majority of City Council members voted to have no authority or oversight of the commission.
The council's split decision, at its core, highlighted the council members' differing opinions over who should ultimately be accountable for the weighty task of shaping residents' voting opportunities.
Mueller and Combs, in the minority, favored keeping that privilege with elected officials. Mueller said that he felt it to be the role of elected officials to be accountable for protecting residents' voting rights, and that the City Council is up to the task.
"I really believe the residents of Menlo Park expect that of the elected officials who they put faith and confidence in, (that the council) would retain some ... minimum level of oversight in case something were to go awry. I think this council would hold that to a very high bar and wouldn't act unless absolutely necessary," he said.
With the independent system, he argued, there's a theoretical worst case scenario in which, for instance, a majority of members had a grudge against one council member, and could go out of their way to "draw a weird map," Mueller said. "That shouldn't be shaping people's voting rights."
"I see this as empowering a randomly selected body to disenfranchise members of our community," Combs said.
Combs added that he objected to the notion that having elected officials retain some authority in in the redistricting process would impact the impartiality of the outcome.
"All of the major decisions are made by elected officials; their ability to make those decisions comes from them being elected," Combs said, adding that having elected officials involved would legitimize the process, in his perspective.
Councilwoman Jen Wolosin, who voted for the independent commission, said, "This isn't about the elected officials, this is about the voters." She also favored shortening a residency requirement to one year instead of the recommended three, but didn't get support from other council members.
Menlo Park switched from at-large to district-based representation in 2018 after a threatened lawsuit alleged that the city's election system violated state law because Latino and Black residents in the Belle Haven neighborhood didn't have fair representation on the City Council.
During the initial process to draw election boundaries in 2018, an advisory commission over eight weeks developed a series of maps dividing the city into its current five districts which the City Council adopted.
At the time, council members expressed interest in assigning redistricting to an independent commission in the future. Council members are impacted by redistricting outcomes, since those boundaries may shape their reelection chances, supporters of the independent commission approach said at the time. They argued that taking away the council's authority to alter the commission's map would prevent council members from interfering with the redistricting process to benefit themselves.
There are other legal checks and balances against gerrymandering, according to Jesus Garcia, demographer with GEOinovo Solutions Inc., the consulting firm the city hired to provide demographic analysis and census mapping services to help with its redistricting process.
The new district map that the independent commission develops will still need to comply with fair voting laws, and anyone may challenge the fairness and validity of the map, he said.
"If it's a bad map, it's a bad map. It can and probably will be challenged going forward," Garcia said.
Commission applicants must be at least 18 years old and have lived in Menlo Park for at least three years. They'll have to agree to comply with the Brown Act, Public Records Act and Political Reform Act, and not serve on the City Council for at least five years after participating on the commission.
For at least four years, they'll also have to agree not to participate in or contribute to any City Council campaign and not enter a contract with the city unless it was part of a competitive bidding process, according to Assistant City Attorney Denise Bazzano.
The City Clerk will randomly pick the first three commissioners from among the applicants. Those three commissioners will, with a majority vote, pick the other four commissioners and two alternates from among the remaining applicants, Bazzano said. Both of those selection processes would be held in public meetings, she added.
One outcome of redistricting that seems to be unavoidable is that, for any households that suddenly find themselves in a new district, it's likely that the next election they will be allowed to vote in will be in either two or six years, rather than the traditional four years.
That's because of the staggered election system, which mandates three City Council members and two City Council members be eligible for election in alternate even years. Districts 1, 2 and 4 will be up for election in 2022 while districts 3 and 5 won't be up for election until 2024.
For instance, if a boundary were to shift from District 3 toward District 2, some former District 2 residents, suddenly part of District 3, wouldn't be able to vote until 2024 even though the last election they would have participated in would have been in 2018.
The potential delaying effect from the boundary shift would also apply to elected officials. If an elected official lives in an area where the district boundaries have changed, he or she would be permitted to serve the remainder of the term, but then would have to wait until the next time the new district seat is up for election, Bazzano said.
Combs expressed interest in synchronizing the election cycles so that all five City Council members are up for election at one time, but the rule of splitting the number of council members up for reelection in alternate two-year cycles is a law codified within the city's incorporation, according to Bazzano.
Combs called the fact that someone might have to wait six years between able to vote in local elections "a defect in the process."
"I'd say that's disenfranchisement," he said.
The city is required to complete the redistricting process by April 17, 2022, according to a staff report.
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]