The California Citizens Redistricting Commission was formed with the idea of shielding the drawing of district lines from politics.
Good luck with that.
Even as the Commission has held numerous public meetings around the state intended to show its transparency, rival political groups have been charging each other with trying to game the process behind the scenes.
The disputes have led to some strange political bedfellows as well, with a prominent Democratic political consultant who opposed the Commission defending it against Republican attacks, and the liberal elections activist who got voters to approve the Commission defending the California Chamber of Commerce against his accusations.
Steve Maviglio is the principle of Forza Communications and a spokesman for labor groups. He claims copies of emails he obtained through a California Public Records Act request show improper communication between Commission staff and the Chamber. In particular, he points to an email where Chamber Vice President Rob Lapsley offered to “help get you the funding needed to hire two firms” to help draw the lines.
Maviglio said this violates the Bagley-Keene open meetings act and the Commission’s charter, which states; “Commission members and staff may not communicate with or receive communications about redistricting matters from anyone outside of a public hearing.”
“The law if pretty clear,” Maviglio said. “It’s black and white. It doesn’t say ‘except for these kinds of things.’ It says ‘shall not.’ Even if it’s about what color tie you’re wearing.”
But Kathay Feng — executive director of California Common Cause and a driving force behind Proposition 11, the 2008 voter initiative that created the Commission — said that many groups and have communicated with the Commission have had similar types of interactions with commission staff. The goal is to make sure there is proper access and outreach to various groups, she said.
“The commissioners also wear a hat of needing to do coordination and outreach,” Feng said. “You have to do that some way. I think the best way is to do that with the staff. And I think the staff has been good about not letting that bleed into mapping conversations.”
Maviglio was unconvinced.
“When even good government groups are bending their ears, it compromises the process,” Maviglio said. “What special favors they’re asking for, no one will ever know, because those meeting swere not public. For a commission that is constantly billing themselves as holier-than-thou, I think it’s a black mark on their work.”
“Rob Lapsley has never met or talked privately with any redistricting commissioner,” said Denise Davis, vice president of external affairs at the Chamber. “He has participated in a public panel discussion that included a commissioner, Cynthia Dai, and John Myers of KQED. Rob has met with staff of the redistricting commission once in order to help them generate participation in the public process. Rob has testified before the entire commission once.”
At issue is the hiring of an outside consulting firm to help the 14 commissioners with the technical process of actually drawing the lines. The Commission’s selection of Berkeley-based Q2 Data and Research has irked many Republicans, including the new chairman of the California Republican Party, Tom Del Beccaro. Del Beccaro has been on a public campaign against the choice, which he said was made in a “no-bid” contract after the Commission “staff significantly lowered the experience qualification standard” in order to hire the firm — as he wrote in an April 19 editorial on the conservative Fox & Hounds political blog.
Del Beccaro and other conservatives wanted the Commission to choose the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, or hire both Rose and Q2. The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which has served as a model for the process in California, has been evaluating the Rose Institute to help draw their lines.
Oddly, Maviglio worked against both Prop. 11, and also against Prop. 20, the 2010 initiative that added drawing Congressional lines to the Commission’s job of creating districts for the state Legislature and the Board of Equalization. He said that once the Commission became law, he didn’t see any contradiction in defending it from what he said are partisan attacks by Republicans.
Both Rose and Q2 have been accused of political bias. Del Beccaro called Bruce Cain, a minority owner of Q2, “a Democratic redistricting consultant who was closely involved in the infamous 1981 and 2001 gerrymanders of California.” Writing in the Democratic blog, The California Majority Report, where he is one of the main authors, Maviglio defended Q2 in March by noting that Cain had recused himself from the process.
Maviglio went on to say that the Rose Institute was disqualified for failing to disclose their own political ties, including “past donors and the political affiliations of the people they have done work for.” This includes employees who have worked for Republicans in California and elsewhere.
He also noted that the recipient of the Feb. 18 email from the Chamber’s Lapsley, Commission communications director Rob Wilcox, used to work for former Republican Assemblywoman Marion W. La Follette. Wilcox has disclosed this fact, including in his biography on the Commission website, and also passed through a set of strict conflict-of-interest requirements that barred direct political involvement over the last decade.
In that email, the Chamber’s Lapsley referred to the hiring of “Bruce Cain,” not Q2. He also referenced a meeting with Wilcox the previous day and stated a need to “create the balance and address the partisan criticism that is brewing.”
Feng said the Bagley-Keene open meetings requirements refer to the behavior of the staff and the commissioners, not what others might attempt to say to them — and that there was no evidence that Wilcox or anyone else with the Commission did anything wrong. She added that the fact that the Commission stuck with their choice of Q2 showed their independence.
“The proof is in the pudding — they made the decision and ended up sticking with it,” Feng said.
Wilcox referred comment to Vince Baraba, one of the three Republican members of the Commission. Baraba pointed out that neither Wilcox nor any other member of the staff had the power to make important decisions, which are voted on by the Commission members.
He also noted that the Chamber is just one of many groups from across the political spectrum who have been testifying before and otherwise attempting to influence this Commission. This includes groups more likely to be identified with Democrats, such as the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Fair Redistricting (CAPAFR) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which is also one of several groups that have been circulating their own draft maps for what they’d like to see the districts look like.
“I’d defy someone who is blindfolded to listen to our meetings and then say who was a member of which party,” Baraba said. “I’ve had to forget everything I knew about politics in order to do this job right. It’s been fun.”