New political lines are in the future for San Luis Obispo County

Government watchers next year will be keeping an eye on a new state citizens commission created by voters and designed to remove politics from the way boundaries for state and federal elections are drawn.

The same process will take place at the local level.

In San Luis Obispo County, the five districts for the Board of Supervisors will get a new look to ensure that they contain the same number of people.

Redrawing the lines is required by law and takes place every 10 years, after the U.S. census is completed.

The process has received attention statewide because the state Legislature currently draws the boundaries for state and federal districts.

The Legislature uses guidelines, but critics have long said that Democratic and Republican officeholders conspire to interpret those guidelines in a way that protects their own congressional, state Senate and Assembly seats.

Proposition 11 in 2008 and Proposition 20 this year will hand redistricting to the citizens commission.

In the county, leaders are beginning to look at redistricting, according to County Administrative Officer Jim Grant.

“I can assure you it will be a very public process,” Grant wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune. There will be at least one public hearing.

In 2001, the county held several public hearings, and the county staff gave the board five possible scenarios for new district lines.

Grant’s working committee includes members of his office, the Planning and Building Department, the County Counsel’s Office and Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald.

He said the committee can’t really move aggressively until it receives the official census count in April.

“At that point the project swings into full gear.”

The county staff will prepare a number of redistricting options based upon Elections Code requirements and will seek feedback from the public. The supervisors will make the final call, perhaps in August or September.

Supervisors must act by Nov. 1, Grant said. If they don’t, a commission — representing the district attorney, the assessor and the clerk-recorder — will have until Dec. 31 to do the job.

As to the key question — how can the districts be drawn fairly — Grant said the Elections Code provides parameters.

Here is the wording: Boundary lines must be drawn “so that the districts shall be nearly equal in population.” Those creating the districts may consider topography; geography; cohesiveness, continuity, integrity and compactness of territory; and community of interests in the districts.

If any or all of that seems vague and open to interpretation, Grant also points out that if someone disagrees with the new district lines, “they have a right to file a Superior Court action for declaratory relief.”

Additionally, the Elections Code provides that the board may appoint a committee to study redistricting. However, the committee is solely advisory.

According to a former county supervisor, minor local deals on redistricting take place routinely.

“Nothing in politics is ever impartial,” said Shirley Bianchi, who retired from political office in 2006.

Bianchi was on the board the last time districts were redrawn and recalls horse-trading with Harry Ovitt, who left the board in 2008.

Bianchi represented the liberal North Coast and Ovitt the conservative North County. She said neither wanted part of the other’s district, and both fought to juggle the boundaries in a way that left like-minded constituents — his and hers — together in the same district.

Ten years ago, considerable attention also focused on Katcho Achadjian, who represented the South County but lives in San Luis Obispo.

His district had grown in the preceding 10 years and needed to shed some voters. The San Luis Obispo area where he lived seemed like a logical choice to move to a different district, and three of the five proposals would have done exactly that.

However, that would have barred Achadjian from running for re-election in the district he served.

The board drew the lines so as to keep his home in the 4th District, in a move Bianchi jokingly calls a “Katcho-mander,” an allusion to gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing congressional districts in a partisan way.

Achadjian went on to serve 12 years on the board and was elected early this month to the state Assembly.

“Those deals go on all the time,” Bianchi said. However, she added, the changes she saw and participated in did not in any way hurt constituents. “They had no major effect,” she said. “In the long run, they don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

The new districts would take place in time for the 2012 elections. Three seats on the Board of Supervisors will be up that year: the 1st, currently held by Frank Mecham; the 3rd, occupied by Adam Hill; and the 5th, which Jim Patterson represents.