Redistricting commission’s staff also must meet strict conflict-of-interest rules

Stringent conflict-of-interest rules that apply to members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission also apply to the commission’s staff, raising questions in the Capitol about whether it will be difficult to find skilled workers to handle the sensitive map-drawing tasks.

The 14-member commission has now been seated, and the panel is preparing to hold its first, full meeting sometime next month. The commission includes five Democrats, five Republicans and four decline-to-state members.But the staff members behind the public face of the commission do the heavy, day-to-day work and they have yet to be selected.

The commissioners themselves have the option of waiving the rules for particular hires, but only by meeting a supermajority vote requirement: The votes of nine out of the 14 commissioners, including at least three each of Democrats, Republicans and decline-to-state members, are required for a waiver.

The Secretary of State’s office posted three job openings at the commission earlier this month–and these ads refer to the conflict-of-interest requirements. The goal, say people closely associated with the process, is to see if they can get a satisfactory applicant pool without having to relax the requirements. 

“They’re putting up the job announcements in part so that they can get some resumes in…as soon as possible,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause and a driving force behind Proposition 11, the 2008 ballot initiative that created the commission. 

“But they’re also acknowledging that they may or may not get applicants that meet their needs. It is possible that the Commission, once it’s seated formally after January 1, 2011, may want to revisit the job requirements.” 

The narrowly approved initiative included language that excluded commissioners or staffers who had engaged in a variety of activities over the past decade. Those activities include receiving an appointment from the governor, Legislature or Board of Equalization, or being paid by these groups in any way. One also can’t have run for any state office or Congress,  or been either a paid employee or an elected officer of a political party. Lobbyists are barred, as is anyone who has contributed more than $2,000 in political donations in a two-year cycle. 

The Commission recently posted three job openings: administrative assistant, communications director and staff counsel.

According to the Secretary of State’s office and the State Auditor’s office, which has been overseeing the formation of the Commission, they won’t know how many applicants they have until the job postings close on Dec. 29. The staff counsel position will pay between $128,000 and $138,000 annually, a substantial salary. But for someone who meets the above requirements also has the knowledge to do the job, it could represent a pay cut. 

One person who has indicated possible interest in this job is Paul McKaskle. A law professor emeritus at the University of San Francisco, McKaskle twice served the state Supreme Court as chief counsel for the Special Masters on Reapportionment. He is considered an expert on redistricting issues.

McKaskle became a controversial figure to some late in the selection process for commissioners. He survived several rounds of selection that weeded thousands of applicants down to 36 finalists. Eight initial commissioners had the right to choose the final six members of the panel. McKaskle made the final cut but lost out to Michelle DiGuilio-Martz of Stockton, a former training planner for the University of the Pacific.

“I was disappointed that I wasn’t chosen,” McKaskle said. “I have some friends who have urged me to apply to be the Counsel. I am thinking about it but I haven’t made any decisions yet. Of course, it would be up to the commission even if I applied.”

There has been widespread speculation over why McKaskle wasn’t selected.

In a Dec. 14 column, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters suggested it was about race. He noted that a great deal of attention had been paid to diversity on the panel, and how only three of the 14 commissioners eventually chosen were white — a far smaller proportion than the state’s population, which remains nearly half white. 

Feng has a different explanation: “I think McKaskle wasn’t chosen because he lives in Berkeley. Northern California, especially the Bay Area, was already represented heavily. The commission really struggled over the decision.”

McKaskle reportedly lobbied hard for the job, even writing a letter to the commission laying out his extension qualifications. While he remains interested in the commission, he said, the “lack of enthusiasm” for him has given him pause when considering applying for the counsel position. 

Walters viewed McKaskle being left off as a failure, and noted that the only “the only member with hands-on experience with past state redistricting efforts” is very much a political animal — Democrat Maria Blanco, who represented the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund as an attorney.

Again, Feng disagreed, pointing to another Commissioner, Republican Vincent Barabba, a former Census Bureau directors. Feng said the involvement of contenders such as Barabba, McKaskle and others showed the “embarrassment of riches” the state had to choose from when picking the commissioners. She said that she hoped this would spill over to the staff as well. 

“If I had it to do over again, I think I would consider an even larger commission, especially because we have so many extremely qualified individuals who could serve on this Commission. Who knew?” 

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