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Napa City Council moves to implement district elections by fall
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Napa City Council moves to implement district elections by fall

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Every Napa voter will cast a ballot for just one City Council candidate this November, marking the first time in over a century the city will elect representatives in a district-based contest.

All four council members present (the mayor was absent due to an “unexpected emergency”) voted in favor to move forward with eliminating at-large elections in favor of a district system.

A legal petition received on Jan. 2 alleging the city has been in violation of the California Voting Rights Act prompted this transition. The petition said Napa’s current system dilutes the influence of the local Latino community, which accounts for over 41 percent of the total population yet has only ever seen one Latino win a council election.

Despite the unanimous passage, some council members voiced their frustration over lack of alternatives given the financial risk of fighting the allegation in the courts, a cost city attorney Michael Barrett estimated could be more than $1 million.

Councilwoman Liz Alessio reiterated that no California city has successfully litigated against this type of complaint and that those that do go to court end up spending millions of dollars in legal fees, citing Santa Monica’s recent $25 million case alongside a handful of others.

“That’s why I’m not willing to put this off. Losing city money like that is not responsible,” she said.

In the current at-large system, residents vote for however many candidates there are open seats, irrespective of where they live. The district format draws geographic regions and allocates one seat to each of those areas. Residents vote for a single seat, the one that corresponds with the district in which they live. Similarly, candidates can run only for an open seat that lies within their district.

Scott Rafferty, the Walnut Creek-based lawyer representing the Napa County Progressive Alliance that sent the Jan. 2 letter, called the move a shift towards better “representative democracy.”

“This isn’t about you, and it’s not about any candidates,” Rafferty said as he addressed council during the public comment period. “Single-member districting was the model of Congress. It promotes negotiation and makes communities feel heard.”

Tuesday night’s special meeting included presentation by Barrett as well as Marguerite Mary Leoni, the special legal counsel hired by the city for this project, and Paul Mitchell, a data consultant and demographer who will assist and oversee the districting process.

Drawing districts

Established in 2003, the California Voting Rights Act empowers classes protected by federal law, like Napa’s Latino community, which consistently express preferences on candidates or ballot measures different from the rest of the voting population — a phenomenon known as racially polarized voting – to eliminate at-large systems and move towards districts to avoid their vote being diluted.

“Racially polarized voting happens pretty much everywhere,” Barrett said in a phone call Wednesday. “Because it’s relatively easy to establish racially polarized voting, it sets a low legal bar for starting this process, including in the city of Napa.”

Leoni and Mitchell’s presentations provided broad stroke explanations of what’s to come in the transition, a highly nuanced process that’s heavily regulated by a combination of state and federal law.

For example, California “is silent with respect to the shape of electoral districts, so long as they are used,” Leoni said in her presentation, but drawing them incorrectly could end up violating the Fourteenth Amendment.

The primary factor to consider, according to Leoni, must be total population size. While the goal is equity, it can fall within a 10 percent deviation to be considered constitutional at the local level. Unless a minority group could form a “majority of eligible voters in a single-member district,” she added, the creation of a district for that group is not required.

“Napa wouldn’t be able to create majority minority districts because the city is integrated,” Leoni said.

Besides population size, pulled from the most recent census data that, in this case, is 2010, a cascading list of other factors should be considered. These include contiguity, geographic integrity, boundaries identifiable to the citizenry, compactness and non-discrimination, her presentation outlined.

According to the Fourteenth Amendment, in cases where a majority minority district can’t be drawn, race cannot be the “predominant” consideration used to draw boundaries. Rather, mapmakers and lawmakers must focus on unifying “communities of interest.”

“This is really all districting is about,” said Mitchell, whose firm, Redistricting Partners, focuses on California municipalities drawing or re-drawing districts.

Race qualifies as one such community of interest, but Mitchell listed a number of other possibilities such as language, professional industry, age, and home location. He also emphasized the importance of being able to point to where these groups are concentrated on a map and called on the public to speak up about the issues that unite various voices over the course of the public comment period.

“You’re going to be required to use your discretion to determine what’s best for your city,” Leoni told council.

If it sounds complicated, it is, though Barrett assured the nearly-full chamber room that “this is just the beginning,” and that “concepts will be repeated again and again through public hearings over the next four months.”

90-day timeline

The most contentious topic of the night’s discussion was timing.

California law mandates the city draw districts within 90 days. The current plan has Napa adopting the ordinance formally along with a complete district map on April 21. Within that time, there must be five public hearings as well as a significant outreach effort to try to engage the entire community.

Almost all council members expressed tremendous discomfort with the quick turnaround.

“I do not dismiss that some people in our community feel marginalized and invisible, but I can’t be comfortable with this being shoved through and forced upon us,” Councilwoman Doris Gentry said, though she did end up voting to pass the resolution.

Of the 16 people who spoke during public comment, almost all voiced strong support of districting, but asked for more time. Many used the refrain “take the time to do this right.”

“I am in support, but my concern is with the timeline; This timeline is not in the public interest,” said Tracy Krumpen.

However, those who advocated for immediate action did so with great urgency.

“The language used in the letter is to be polite, but we all know what the law says and the timeline is that which is laid out by the law,” said Amy Martenson of the Napa County Progressive Alliance, the only plaintiff mentioned by name in Rafferty’s letter.

This timeline is uniquely controversial given the upcoming 2020 census and the federally mandated re-districting process that will take place inmunicipalities nationwide once updated data is made available.

According to Leoni, the law requires what amounts to a redo of this process with the newest figures.

Concerns about efficiency, wasted time and resources and the possibility of new districts poorly reflecting Napa’s Latino population using 10-year-old data all arose in public comment as reasons to wait until the next election cycle to implement districts.

Council members Scott Sedgley and Gentry also vocally pushed for waiting until 2022 to implement districts, an option that has not been made available by the law or by Rafferty in his representation of his client.

“Mr. Rafferty has made it clear that his client has a strong interest in creating the districts for the 2020 election, and he’s not prepared to agree to an extension,” Barrett said in Wednesday’s phone interview. “And the law identifies that tight 90-day time frame and his request fits within that. He has no obligation to extend.”

Council, therefore, is rendered powerless in changing the timeline without facing likely legal action, Barrett said.

“I am in no way opposing districting, but the problem is we’re going to rush this thing and it’s not going to be what we want,” Sedgley said.

Accessibility

Given that Napa’s Latino community is the protected class in question, a great deal of conversation around their ability to access the process took place prior to the evening and was continued throughout public forum.

At least week’s council meeting, Xulio Soriano asked that an interpreter be present during the discussion so that Spanish speakers don’t have to wait on translated materials to be sent out later. The city subsequently hired someone to translate to individuals who preferred to listen in Spanish in real time through headsets.

Elba Gonzales-Mares and Laura Lopez asked for more meetings in shared spaces where “the community doesn’t feel intimidated by the formality,” and they suggested the inclusion of a meeting led in Spanish and then translated into English.

Soriano spoke in Spanish during public comment. “We want a democracy, and we’re asking that you do your jobs,” he said. “We don’t feel protected...we are in a time of crisis, but for you all it isn’t a crisis.”

However, a different interpreter provided to him by the city then relayed his comments to council members in a manner that more closely represented a summary of his statements than a translation.

Soriano, who also speaks English but felt it important to speak in the language of his peers, called out the discrepancy, telling council his message hadn’t been accurately or fully communicated to them.

“It’s not the fault of the interpreter. It’s a problem with how things have been set up here,” he said.

Other questions – such as the annexation of unincorporated “islands” in Napa County, the creation of a community advisory board and the possibility of adding more council seats – were mentioned during public comment but would happen as part of “a completely separate process from this one,” Barrett said.

The first public hearing will take place Tuesday, Feb. 25. Public and council will be asked for their input and no maps of proposed district boundaries will be provided.

“Tell your friends and neighbors. We all need to commit to spreading the word because this is a very tight time frame but there’s not much of an alternative,” Councilwoman Mary Luros said.

Editor's note: This item has been modified to clarify Tracy Krumpen's quote.

You may reach Carly Graf at cgraf@napanews.com; 713-817-4692; or via Twitter @carlykgraf.

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City of Napa reporter

Carly Graf covers Napa city government and community issues. She received her master’s degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. She most recently worked for a news outlet in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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