Greater transparency urged for CA redistricting commission

A view of the east side of the state Capitol through the trees of Capitol Park. (Photo: Colin Braaten, via Shutterstock)

A former member of the voter-approved commission that draws maps for California’s legislative and congressional districts said the panel should operate more in the open as it crafts the new boundaries.

“On the 2010 redistricting commission, we prided ourselves on the fact that we were very transparent,” says Jodie Filkins Webber.  “At the time, it made it very difficult to hold public hearings because we were doing work in person. Now that meetings are being held via Zoom, it should be relatively easy to schedule these things and allow public participation.”

Several commissioners met with representatives from the secretary of state and legislators from both parties on April 21 to discuss the timeline for releasing district maps — a sensitive issue.

Weber was on the voter-approved California Citizens Redistricting Commission when it drew the maps for the 2012 elections.

According to a CRC memo, several commissioners met with representatives from the Secretary of State’s Office, and legislators from both parties on April 21 to discuss the timeline for releasing district maps — a sensitive issue that political observers have been closely watching. The meeting was held in response to a request from California Common Cause.

The meeting was not open to the public.

This gathering, at which there was a sharp airing of views, included some state lawmakers, representatives of the secretary of state’s office and a number of advocacy groups, among others. 

“The meeting became heated with the varying interests of the stakeholders becoming more clear,” the CRC memo said.

It noted that “community activists were pushing the commission to adopt a deadline in later January to avoid adopting maps during the holiday time period, and others pushing us to abide by the ruling in Padilla to keep the primary date fixed.” The deadlines are crucial because they determine how much time will be available to draw maps for the 2022 primary and general elections. The new maps will be based on the latest census figures.

Weber is not the only person to raise questions about transparency.

“The commission’s ‘outreach’ efforts are being conducted in violation of the transparency provisions of” state law, Charles Munger Jr., a major Republican donor who funded the propositions that created the commission, wrote in a May 7 letter to the body. Munger, according to a May 12 Los Angeles Times report, said it was “important both that this stop and that it not set a precedent for how the commission conducts itself.”

“On the one hand, they’re supposed to do their work as transparently as possible. On the other hand, they’re supposed to return redistricting to the people.” — Jonathan Stein

California’s open-meeting laws have been on the books for years. The Ralph Brown Act of 1953 requires open meetings at a local level, and the Bagley-Keene Act extends that rule to state agencies, boards and commissions.

Jonathan Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, says the situation isn’t so clear cut.

“The commission has two conflicting duties that lie at its core. On the one hand, they’re supposed to do their work as transparently as possible. On the other hand, they’re supposed to return redistricting to the people. Right now, they’re taking a sort of ‘ultra-inclusive’ approach,” he said.

Meeting with community members and experts on issues like outreach, language access, and disability access allows the commission to get as many voices in the redistricting process as possible. But there’s a cost: Scheduling all of these meetings makes it very difficult to provide the public with prior notice far enough in advance, even with technology like Zoom.

The CRC has furthered this inclusive trend by retrieving community input via their Community of Interest tool, which allows California residents to draw their communities on the map. 

Webber, however, says she is concerned that this is the best approach.

“I am very concerned about the veracity of some of these organizations that are out there. If this was allowable on this occasion, what’s to stop [the CRC] from holding private meetings with the ACLU or MALDEF and we are not privy to the information they’re providing?” Webber said.

While there are recordings of some subcommittee meetings, there are no written summaries of meetings not recorded, such as the one on April 21. This can make it difficult for a member of the public to figure out what’s going on in these meetings.

Stein shares concerns about transparency, but argues that overall, the process is sound.

“As transparency watchdogs, we’re actually very happy with the balance that they’ve struck, Stein said. “When you’re taking the most inclusive approach to policymaking that I’ve ever seen a public body take, you’re going to have some ups and downs and bumps in the road.”

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