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Elaine Howle eyes redistricting panel

Next month, the State Auditor’s Office will begin putting together a redistricting commission under Prop. 11. We recently sat down with State Auditor Elaine Howle to find out more about the process.

Tell me about the redistricting process you guys are dealing with right now.  
This is unique to California. It’s the first time that an independent citizens redistricting commission is going to be created. It’s going to be comprised of voters out there who are really interested in participating in the process. What we’ve been working on for pretty much a year now is setting up the process so people understand how they should apply, what would be required of a commissioner, what types of skills we’re looking for, and then working with our consultant here as far as reaching out to the voters and informing them about this opportunity. What the commission is going to do is have the responsibility of re-drawing the legislative districts for both the Assembly, Senate, and also the equalization district. It does not cover congressional districts.

We’ve developed the regulations; the application process will start in December; December 15th. It’ll go through February 12th. We encourage people to go to our website, www.wedrawthelines.ca.gov, and look. [We’re looking for] people who have certain types of analytical skills, the ability to take in information and work with computers, understand certain aspects of California. We’re looking for people who understand and appreciate the diversity of California, the ethnic diversity certainly is an important one but the geographic diversity, how is the inland counties different from the counties on the coast, Northern California vs. Southern, urban vs. rural.

I think the initiative itself speaks volumes about the fact that the citizens in this state want this process to be done by the voters, as opposed to how its traditionally has been done by the Legislature. We need the assistance of yourself and your readers to spread the word about this opportunity. If you don’t think you’re qualified or if you don’t think you’re interested in this type of process, you may have friends who may be very well qualified or be very interested.

What kind of commitment are we talking about if you’re on the Commission?
The Commission has to be established by the end of calendar year 2010, so our job is to get this commission established. We actually pick the first eight names, randomly draw them in November, and then those eight commissioners pick the remaining six. There are 14 commissioners in total.

The commission is required to commence its work in January of 2011. They must have the maps drawn by September 15th, that’s about an 8 ½ month time frame. How frequently the commission will need to meet, how long they will need to meet on a particular day is going to be entirely up to the commissions depending on the workload.  We’re in the process of putting some materials together that we can get on our website to try to educate people so that they’re making an informed decision when they decide to apply.  

The commission is in all likelihood going to be meeting in a variety of locations in the state, because they need to hear public input from people from throughout the state. Beyond that, we don’t have any more specific information as far as the commitment. But again, we’re working with some re-districting experts who have done this in the past, who can help us develop some more materials that will educate the public about what the expectations will be.  

It’s a big commitment, but it’s also a huge opportunity for you to be the first citizens’ commission in this state. There are some commissions in other states. Most of them are either appointees of the legislator or appointees of the governor. This is truly going to represent the citizens of the state because the commissioners are actually going to be everyday people. Not only is this an opportunity to be on a commission for the first time in California but it could end up being a national model.  

On the 14-member commission, there will be five republicans, five democrats, and four of any other party. Our job is to come up with this pool of candidates, a pool of 20 republicans, 20 democrats and 20 from any other party. Then there’s a process where the legislator can strike some names that come back to my office and we randomly draw those eight.

It could get interesting when it gets in the Legislature.
It’s built into the initiative that they would be part of the process. The legislative leadership, the two leaders from each house, each can strike two names out of the three pools. So there is a total of 24 strikes. At a minimum, 36 names come back to my office. Then we randomly draw those names to identify the eight. Then those eight commissioners will make the decision from the remaining individuals in the pool that we’ve identified as who those other six will be. They’ll contemplate making sure that again the commission represents the diversity in California as well.  

Do people whose names are struck get to find out they’ve been struck and who struck them?
You know, that’s probably in the regulations. All of this information is on our website. If people are interested in reading the regs, we have memos that explain our thought process in developing the regulations.    

It reminds me of a jury poll.
That’s exactly what a lot of people equate it to when I explain the process. But again, the pools are going to be big. What I’ve told people when I’ve done presentations is “make the state auditor’s job difficult.” We want as many talented people to apply so when we make those 20 pools, regardless of who is selected from the 20 Dems, Republicans and the other, all of those individuals, those 60 are going to be the most qualified people we can find to run this commission because of the importance of the responsibility. Yeah there will be strikes, but they won’t have an impact on the quality of the commission because we will give them 60 excellent names.  

Don’t you have a difficult job even when this process isn’t going on? Do you have extra staff?
We actually do not have extra staff. We have lots and lots of work. It was kind of thrown in our laps, a bit of a surprise to us. It’s a huge challenge, but to be quite honest, we are flattered that the voters have that kind of confidence in my office. As I said in an editorial, the voters picked the right agency to do this job. We’re going to do it well. We have some funding that was appropriated by the Legislature, and I will keep asking for additional money. But we’re committed to doing this job as well as we do our audit work.

Do you guys also have a job in overseeing federal stimulus money?
Absolutely. We look at federal programs every single year, wether its stimulus money or not. We’ve been looking at federal awards for over 20 years. The stimulus is just more money lumped onto existing federal dollars.

In a massive, chaotic fashion.
In a very short time-frame, which increases the risk, increases the opportunities for fraud. But again, we’re best positioned to look at this because we have the expertise of doing this for 20-plus years. We’ve put a plan together in regard to Recovery Act work, as far as audit work. We’re being looked at by other states as a model. The GAO [federal General Accountability Office] is actually suggesting that other states talk to us because we’ve come up with an approach that is going to be very effective. Is it challenging? Absolutely.


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