Nothing new in SLO County’s redistricting battle

February 8, 2022

Richard Patten map


To paraphrase President Harry Truman: “There is nothing new about a controversial redistricting of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, except the local history you do not know.”

Forty years ago San Luis Obispo County faced a controversy over the redistricting of the Board of Supervisors similar to the current redistricting controversy. Then, as now, it landed on the docket of the San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

In the summer of 1981, a redistricting ordinance, somewhat similar to the current one which went into effect last month, was adopted by a 3-2 vote of the Supervisors. It put the City of San Luis Obispo and its two liberal supervisors (Kurt Kupper and Jeff Jorgensen) into one district (the Fifth). As for the rest of the county, Cambria and San Simeon were removed from the Second District and placed into the North County’s First District. The remainder of the Second District extended north of Cuesta Grade to include part of Atascadero, with the exception of portion of Los Osos and the Los Osos Valley which was placed in a new Third District extending down the coast to Grover City (i.e. Grover Beach). The Fourth District extended from Edna to Nipomo and over the mountains to Creston.

However, unlike the current ordinance, it never went into effect. Why not?

A couple of months prior to the board’s vote, I was sharing a beer in the kitchen of my friend and neighbor Daphne Stout, who had succeeded me as Chair of the County Democratic Central Committee. She told me that someone at a local bar had overheard somebody else boasting that a new supervisorial redistricting plan would “stick it” to the City of San Luis Obispo. (I bet the actual words heard were more vulgar, but Daphne was a lady of high moral rectitude, and I never heard any foul language pass through her lips).

My immediate reaction, (not unlike O. Henry’s  E. Rushmore Coglan, who would not tolerate anyone disparaging the city of his birth,) was to say to her, “Well, we have to run a referendum petition.”

And so it was, that within 30 days after it was passed, a referendum petition signed by over 10,000 registered voters protesting the adoption of the ordinance was filed with the County Clerk. By this petition  the ordinance was suspended and sent back to the board to either to repeal it or to submit the ordinance to an election for the approval of the voters.

At this point, the County Clerk, who was new to the county and had only been recently appointed by the board,  moaned to the press that he had no idea how to conduct an election for the board while the districts were uncertain.

Surprisingly, however, one member of the the board majority broke ranks, and voted with the minority to repeal the ordinance. With no redistricting ordinance in place, state law, (subsequently repealed), required that the districts be drawn by a commission composed of the county clerk, the district attorney and the county assessor. This commission adopted a redistricting ordinance that only made relatively minor changes to the existing districts to reflect an equal distribution of population.

End of story? Of course not. Because the commission split Grover City ( i.e. Grover Beach) between the 4th and 3rd Districts, certain citizens of Grover announced that they were appalled, and that they would circulate another referendum petition against the decision of the commission.

Following this, the county clerk announced that because of this pending petition the districts might not be settled before the time for candidates to file for the June primary election, and so he was unilaterally cancelling the election for Supervisors until the new districts were finalized. (Under state law, the incumbent officeholders remain in office until a successor is elected and qualified.)

At his point in Jan. 1982, I filed suit for a Writ of Mandate to require the county clerk to hold the election for supervisor at the time prescribed by law, June 1982. (Nolan v. Board of Supervisors).

All of the county judges recused themselves. Santa Maria Judge Zel Canter was appointed to hear the case. After a hearing, he ruled in February that the county clerk was required to conduct the election for supervisors at the June Primary Election and that the districts to be used were those drawn by the commission.

While the press focused on then recent cases handed down by the state supreme court, I believe that the deciding case was an otherwise obscure petition for a writ of mandate against Inyo County which should apply to the pending litigation to be heard later this week.

In Wiltsie v. Board of Supervisors (1966) 65 Cal.2d 314, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the redistricting ordinance of the board violated both the U.S. Constitution and the California Government Code Section 25000 as it then read. But instead of enjoining the pending election for supervisors the court stated: “We are mindful of the fact that in the general elections immediately pending one or more of the supervisors of Inyo County will be selected by the electors of the districts involved, and as a practical matter no redistricting could or should be completed before that election.” id. at 317-318. The Court retained jurisdiction if the county did not properly redistrict 90 days after the election.

The reason why maintaining the calendar and the date for the election for supervisors is so important is because otherwise incumbent supervisors could only be removed from office when a successor is elected. No elections, no successors. It is better to have an election with bad districts, than to postpone the election, or have none at all.

Which goes back to the court case forty years ago. Within days of Judge Canter’s ruling, both supervisors up for reelection surprised the community by announcing that they were not going to seek reelection. It seems that they both decided to retire when their redistricting effort failed and when the prospect of a “rescheduled” low turnout special election ended. (As it was, two years later in 1984 both Jeff Jorgensen and Kurt Kupper also retired from the Board).

The lesson of this journey down the memory hole is that the opponents to the current redistricting had a legal right to petition for a referendum. But that takes actual hard work to convince voters to sign your petition. the easy way seems to be to get people to sign a check rather than a petition. And we all know that the easy way is the path to success.