The majority of council members favored the independent commission approach, which would leave the power to decide district boundaries in the hands of a completely separate entity from the City Council. The commissioners who would make the decision would not be elected. Those in favor of the independent commission argued that it means those commissioners would be less politically motivated and more impartial in their task of drawing up fair boundaries than elected people.
"I feel really strongly about having an independent commission," said Councilwoman Jen Wolosin. "To me it's fundamental to our democracy. I'm very encouraged that there are some guardrails, (and) some checks and balances we can write into the resolution."
Those who opposed the independent commission approach argued that the council, as an elected body representing the wills of the voters, would relinquish too much power to an unelected body in making a decision with such important outcomes for voters. They also argued that, should problems develop within the commission — tension, disagreements, failures to achieve their objectives — then the council would have little recourse over how to address them.
"What this is a question of is whether or not we're going to have a select group of unelected people make a big decision regarding how elections take place in Menlo Park with no check at all from the body elected by voters," Mueller said. "I just reject the notion that somehow public servants have a failing and someone who's not elected by the public, and doesn't have to answer to the public, and will never be called on to the carpet by the public is somehow immune to ... making mistakes."
The second "hybrid" approach includes responsibilities for both the council and an independent commission, and would be similar to an independent commission, but commissioners would be required to submit two or more maps of new boundaries to the City Council, and the City Council would then have to select one. The council would not be allowed to alter the selected map, unless needed to comply with federal or state law.
Consultant Alex Sainz from the firm GEOinovo Solutions, Inc. explained that the process of developing the new maps will also include steps to engage the community using the website districtr.org, a digital mapping interface. It lets people design their own district boundaries based on some of the considerations mandated by law: population balance, shape, natural and official boundaries and other considerations, like whether the boundaries block minority groups from electing the candidates they prefer or keep groups with significant shared interests within the same boundaries.
The consultants also plan to evaluate the proposed map to make sure it complies with the relevant laws, especially the federal Voting Rights Act, according to a presentation to the City Council.
According to City Attorney Nira Doherty, the council may also commit to specific parameters and expectations for the commission, or direct public outreach. "What the council may not do is approve the (new district) map once an independent commission is established," she said.
Menlo Park went through its first districting process in 2018, which was led by an advisory committee over an eight-week period. The city is expected to receive redistricting data from the U.S. Census Bureau and California Statewide Database in October and is required to complete the redistricting process by April 17, 2022, according to a staff report. The matter is expected to come back to the City Council to establish the commission.
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