Why redistricting Plan B-2 is not optimal

September 20, 2011

Stew Jenkins


The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors’ 2011 redistricting plan is in line to pass Tuesday, September 20. Redistricting is one of those thankless tasks that tends to generate more enemies than friends. But neither the Board of Supervisors nor any other representative body seems to be able to approach the task of its own redistricting from a neutral position.

The Republican majority on the Board in 2001 dictated a plan that diluted the influence of San Luis Obispo by dividing it four ways in a manner that preserved their own relationship with voters that they thought would re-elect them.

Predictably, there is no longer any sitting Supervisor who was elected when he was a resident of the City of San Luis Obispo (even though it is the only city with a population equal to one full supervisorial district).

In 2011 a new majority of two Democrats and a Green turned Independent, teamed up with two Republicans to make modest adjustments in the lines “so as not to inconvenience voters.” In other words, so they could preserve the relationships that these officeholders had with the voters they were depending on to reelect them.

One might think that as politically sophisticated as Supervisors are that they would have taken note when voters’ demonstrated in 2008 and 2010 that their patience was exhausted with the way redistricting is usually done; enacting two initiatives that imposed new rules for redistricting first the Legislature and later Congress. But the protection of an incumbent’s relationships with “their” voters unswervingly boxes any officeholder back into the same old habits of self-interest and self-protection.

Recognizing this inherent conflict-of-interest, voters weighed in during both 2008 and 2010 to add to the State Constitution Article 21. Not only did it mandate that redistricting would be accomplished by a Citizen’s Redistricting Commission (which barred sitting and recent officeholders from participating); but Section 2. (d) (4) and (5) gave the Commission clear do’s and don’ts.

The one big don’t specifically decreed in the amendment was that “communities of interest shall not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.”

The most important do was to draw districts so that a city, neighborhood, or local community of interest would in most cases not be divided. A “community of interest” was positively defined as a contiguous population sharing common social and economic interests which should be kept in a single district for effective and fair representation. In other words, a City should be placed in a single district. Contiguous cities or communities with common social and economic interests should be drawn together into a single district.

So what would be different had these principles been followed at the County level? Quite a bit. For instance, since the 2000 census, San Luis Obispo County has experienced significant growth in our Hispanic population that has gravitated notably to the affordable and Contiguous Communities of Grover Beach and Oceano.

Had the redistricting followed the principles of California’s Constitution Article 21 to place contiguous populations sharing common social and economic interests, the Supervisors would have drawn both these communities into a single Supervisorial District. This would have complied with one of the other dictates of Article 21 requiring compliance with the Voting Rights Act to prevent dilution of minority voting power.

This may be the current maps’ most significant flaw that is likely to generate litigation against the County sometime during the coming decade. The tax payers will be saddled with with the costs of any such litigation.

Obviously, San Luis Obispo, which almost exactly equals the population of one Supervisorial District, would have been drawn into one district. Probably coastal communities from San Simeon to Pismo would have been drawn into one district, and Templeton would never likely have had to fight to be drawn into a single district.

Officeholders in counties or smaller governmental subdivisions can accurately say that the Article 21 of the California Constitution does not apply to any redistricting other than that of the State Legislature and the House of Representative. But the recent experience of San Luis Obispo County and a number of other Counties (including Los Angeles) this year strongly suggests that the electorate wants similar principles to apply to local decisions about redistricting.

Voters should look at alternatives that structure and enact requirements for a County Citizens’ Redistricting Commission before the 2020 census. It would necessarily be county centric, made up of citizens from the county; but like Article 21 it should require that those serving on any local Citizen’s Redistricting Commission not be made up of current or recent officeholders with an interest in re-election or future elevation to any of the districts drawn.

Stew Jenkins is an attorney practicing in San Luis Obispo since 1978, who has served as judge pro-tem and as a special master for the Superior Courts. A former elected Harbor Commissioner, Mr. Jenkins was the 2004 Democratic Nominee for the 33rd Assembly District who at the time advocated that redistricting of the Legislature should be done by a special grand jury in open session with members drawn from throughout the State of California. Mr. Jenkins, with his co-counsel Saro Rizzo, recently defended the County Democratic Party in Wilson v. San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee; where they established for the first time in the United States the right of citizens to freely organize and structure county political parties under the 1st Amendment in more inclusive ways than “permitted” by a State Legislature.

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If one (or more) supervisor(s) want(s) to redraw the district lines to gain voters (make it fair) maybe they should allow some high density building to occur within their district instead of taking a “N.I.M.B.Y.” approach…

The inclusion of voters who live in The City of San Luis Obispo into four of the five proposed supervisorial districts is designed to enhance the influence of those voters, not dilute it. Such an arrangement is also consistent with San Luis Obispo County voters’ tendency to elect moderate candidates. Mr. Jenkins probably would argue that the current board majority is anything but moderate on the issue of real estate development, growth, and land use, which continues to be the major hot-button issue in our county and will be for years to come.

Communities of interest are not defined by geography. I would argue that, for the most part, the entirety of San Luis Obispo County is one community of interest. We have agricultural enterprises spread throughout the county. Hospitality and other visitor service, by dint of our county’s popularity as a wine destination, is distributed inland. We relate to each in commerce and culture seamlessly when friends and/or events beckon from anywhere in the county.

I would argue that there also are two important communities of interest in our county: Those who would like to see housing tracts built in the eastern section of the county, removed from our public-service infrastructure, and those who would prefer to entertain those grand designs when the county budget is sufficient to support them. I don’t see the benefit of The City of San Luis Obispo as a political island surrounded by pro-growth interests who have a 4-1 majority on the Board of Supervisors. Does Mr. Jenkins?

I’m sorry, but you seem to be analyzing the situation based upon preferred outcomes. Redistricting should be apolitical. Why should SLO received “enhanced influence”? SLO deserves a representative and outlying communities also deserve a representative not diluted by SLO voters or influence.

Communities of interest certainly are geographical. Did you attend the state redistricting committee meeting in SLO? Person after person testified that Cuesta grade is a clear demarcation between communities. North county and rural areas should have representation. The coast, north and south, should have representation. South county should have representation. SLO should have representation.

Representation should not be thrown into one pot and blended into a slurry.

At last, a topic of agreement.


For blade’s proposition to be true that dividing San Luis Obispo City between three districts increases the City’s influence over County policies to be true, each portion would need to wield enough weight within that district to influence the election outcome.

Only the third district contains enough of the City to seriously sway the outcome of an election; there 46% of the district is made up of San Luis Obispo residents. The 8,200 City residents in the second district make up only 16% of the 2nd district; while the 12,800 City residents in the fifth district barely provide 25% of the population of the 5th district. And that is true even though the 2nd and 5th districts have the least population of any of those drawn. Voters in those portions of the City of San Luis have lost the ability to significantly influence any one of the five Supervisors on any issue, including land use.

Blade’s predictions about the effects on the single issue of land use policies of keeping actual cities and communities in single districts is no more true than predictions were that depriving the legislature of the power to redistrict would favor “conservative” interests when Proposition 11 was proposed. The reverse has proved to be true. And the two dimensional view that everyone in the County of San Luis Obispo is in one bucolic community laying around drinking and serving wine together may say more about blade. I agree with Jenkins. Really, no elected official should be able to gerrymander their own district.