The county Board of Supervisors will get rolling Tuesday on a task it undertakes only once every decade — drawing new boundaries for the county’s five supervisory districts.
Under state law, the board has until Nov. 1 to redraw district lines in a way that “ensure(s) that legislative representation is fair and balanced.” The next supervisor election in this county will be the June 2012 primary in the 1st, 3rd and 5th districts.
The districts must each have the same number of residents.
A newly created state redistricting commission is doing the same thing on a larger scale, mapping new Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization districts as well as congressional districts.
The phrase “fair and balanced legislative representation” is open to wide interpretation, and one of the tasks facing the supervisors will be creating definitions that will satisfy that and other California Election Code wording.
For example, the code says the county can consider topography, geography, contiguousness of territory and a fourth, far less discrete factor: “community of interests.”
But what does that latter phrase mean? Does it refer to shared economic interests? Ethnic interests?
Leslie Brown of the county Administrator’s Office suggests in a memo to supervisors that they should “to the extent possible” structure districts “so they do not carve up neighborhoods or separate groups of people living in an area that have similar interests.”
In addition, Brown suggested that the board “avoid drawing districts with odd shapes in order to incorporate one political party, one interest group or racial/ ethnic group.”
This latter practice is known as gerrymandering, named after Elbridge Gerry, a founding father, early governor of Massachusetts and vice president under James Madison. Gerry was involved in carving up a district that ended up looking like a salamander, leading to his name being associated with a corrupt political practice.
Democrats and Republicans in California have gerrymandered with such abandon — scratching each other’s backs by creating “safe” districts for both parties — that it led to the creation of the new state commission, whose members have been carefully selected in an exhaustive process designed to keep politics at bay.
At the county level, gerry-mandering has not been as incendiary a problem.
In getting to work on defining these terms, the Board of Supervisors must decide whether it wants county employees to design the redistricting ordinance, or whether it would be better to create an independent committee.
Supervisors also are expected to ask staff to develop a timetable for public involvement.