In the face of growing dissatisfaction and threats of legal action, Redwood City has put off a vote scheduled for Monday to give final approval to an ordinance establishing a new set of seven council districts that creates only one Latino-majority district, and no others in which ethnic minorities constitute a majority of voting age residents.
The creation of districts was prompted by the threat of a lawsuit asserting that the city’s at-large elections were systematically disenfranchising Latino voters and denying them fuller and more adequate representation on the Council.
But the district map approved in a 4-3 council vote on March 11 has caused outrage in the Latino community, with the Redwood City-based group Latino Focus planning a protest rally 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, just prior to the regularly scheduled Council meeting.
Mayor Ian Bain told Political Climate via email this evening: “After meeting with City staff today, we are not going to put the second reading of the ordinance on Monday’s agenda. Instead, we will conduct additional legal review and bring this back at a future meeting.”
Connie Guerrero, one of the leaders of Latino Focus, said the rally will go forward, even though the vote has been postponed.
“We are cautiously optimistic, but we continue to need to raise our voices,” she said. “The demographics of Redwood City are such that we need to be heard and a lot of people feel that way. We will have to wait and see.”
In the March 11 vote, Bain, Janet Borgens, Diane Howard and Diana Reddy voted in support of the district map, and Alicia Aguirre, Giselle Hale and Shelly Masur voted against.
But after months of discussion and debate over map details, the council could not reach a consensus that could avoid a split vote and now, in the face of rising criticism, it appears the final decision remains in doubt. It seems almost a preordained outcome for a process that seemed to get lost in a maze of conflicting and difficult decisions.
Because the council has until March 29 to approve a districting plan or face a costly and troublesome civil rights challenge, postponing the issue does not appear to be an option available to the council.
That leaves only a couple of equally distasteful choices: Launch a legal defense of the decision the council already made, and risk further alienating the Latino community, among others, or reconsider one of the districting maps it passed over.
Reconsideration would be a win for the community leaders from Latino Focus who are mobilizing in opposition to the plan approved by the Council and were urging the Monday protest rally under the title “SOY,” which is Spanish for “I am” and was doubling as an acronym, “Shame On You.”
A Latino Focus news release said the council “ignored our repeated pleas to create two majority-Latino districts” and “eliminated two coalition districts” that would have had a majority of non-white residents.
The news release expressed support for a map, titled 21d, which would create one majority-Latino district and two other districts where the majority would be composed of Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans.
Latino Focus spokesman Alberto Garcia said the city should have at least two minority-majority districts. “There are so many issues facing the city – displacement, income inequality, educational issues – and as an organization we really want to hold the council responsible to create an attitude of inclusivity,” he said.
Garcia said the council’s approach to the challenge of districting “was very reactive and defensive, as opposed to being more open and receptive to becoming more inclusive.”
Indeed, in public sessions and an interview with Political Climate, Mayor Bain expressed unhappiness that the city has been put into the position of drawing districts based on racial demographics. He said Redwood City residents have a history of not dividing along racial lines and of voting for the individual and not based on race.
The council also seemed, at times, overwhelmed by the number of districting map proposals it was facing – more than two dozen – and the range of considerations that had to be reviewed.
The final outcome not only energized the Latino community, but prompted complaints that the council failed to create a single district out of the Redwood Shores neighborhood, which lies north and east of the city, is physically disconnected from the rest of the city, is actually closer to Belmont and has a high percentage of Asian-American residents.
In creating a Redwood Shores district, the council also included the new development at Bair Island, guaranteeing that Councilwoman Masur would be ensconced in that district, which, it should be noted, she opposed.
Critics called it gerrymandering and noted that the council made sure that none of the current incumbents would be in the same districts and be forced to face off against one another in a future election. Councilwoman Howard expressed particular concern that putting two council members in the same district would be an affront to the voters who put those councilmembers in office, essentially disenfranchising them.
Of course, disenfranchisement is exactly what the Latino community says has been happening to them for decades.
In hindsight, it appears the council should have appointed an independent citizens commission that would have drawn a new set of districts and presented it to the council as a finalized product. Concerned it didn’t have enough time, the council tried to do the job itself.
Council members also were hoping to ride out any criticism by noting that the city will be redistricted following the 2020 census. Some admitted they saw this first set of maps as a placeholder and that some of the tougher issues can be tackled in the next round, probably by a citizens commission.
It appears that didn’t work and council is not done with some hard decisions.
“It’s really important that this be done the right way,” said Guerrero. “We want to make sure they do the citizens advisory committee. We already see it didn’t work this way. We kind of left it to the powers that be and it didn’t work out that well.”
Contact Mark Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online.