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23 May 2018

A More Representative Council? A Chat With Councilwoman Lisa Middleton About Palm Springs' Steps Toward Changing to District Elections

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Palm Springs City Councilwoman Lisa Middleton. Palm Springs City Councilwoman Lisa Middleton.

Lisa Middleton got more than 7,000 votes to lead the way in last year’s at-large Palm Springs City Council election, becoming the first openly transgender person to be elected to a non-judicial office in the state of California.

That may have been the last at-large City Council election that Palm Springs will ever hold.

The city of Palm Springs—like other jurisdictions across the state that currently don’t elect representatives in district-based elections—has received a letter from Shenkman and Hughes, a Malibu-based law firm representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, claiming the city is violating California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project aspires to increase the presence of Latino candidates in municipal elections.

Indio and Cathedral City, facing similar threats, moved to district-based elections this year.

The letter claimed Palm Springs’ current election system has “resulted in racially polarizing voting” and is diluting the influence of Latino voters.

The letter may have a point. The last Latino who served on the Palm Springs City Council was Joseph Garcia, who was in office from 1972 to 1976—even though Census numbers show that about a quarter of Palm Springs’ population is currently Latino.

The City Council recently decided to start moving toward district elections and is hiring a demographer to analyze how to draft boundaries—a process that Middleton said has cost other cities $30,000 to $60,000.

We recently interviewed Middleton regarding the issue.

Does Palm Springs have an inclusive nature, politically speaking?

My campaign and my election wouldn’t be possible in many, if not most, cities in the U.S., but it was certainly possible here in Palm Springs. The LGBTQ community has been coming to Palm Springs almost since the founding of the city, and in the last 20-25 years, Palm Springs has (become) a community substantially inclusive, not only of LGBTQ people, but progressive individuals as well. Our community has clearly evolved in terms of its politics.

How did you personally feel when you read the letter from Shenkman and Hughes?

I truly enjoyed running city-wide. I was extremely proud that my campaign resonated in every part of our city and that I knew the people and issues on the ground in each of our 45 neighborhoods. I found myself, in the first few days after receipt of the letter, in meetings far from my own neighborhood. I’m so happy to represent those neighborhoods. I did not want to lose that one-on-one connection with each of our neighborhoods. But after a few days, it was clear this was not about me; this is about what’s best for our city. My job is to do what is best for all of our city—today and tomorrow.

How do we get to the point of electing a Latino representative with a district election?

The Latino population in Palm Springs, in comparison to other ethnic groups, is disproportionally young. We’ve seen it in public schools in Palm Springs that are overwhelmingly Latino: 75 to 80 percent are students obviously not yet eligible to vote, but will be at some point. … What we’re doing is moving in the right direction. It might not be in that first (district) election, and perhaps not even in the second election. … Down the road, we can bear the fruit of something that will lead to electing those individuals to the City Council and other offices.

Do you see the City Council as being more diverse in the future?

We are working to set in motion a series of reforms that should result in greater participation of our residents throughout the city in their government. I am convinced that we can increase the participation of all of our residents. The more our city represents all of the people of our city, the better. It is easy to lose faith. It is not easy to put yourself out front as a potential representative for your community and your city. I’m working on a City Council that is committed to have a hand out to help those ready to step up.

What about the allegations that the city violated the California Voting Rights Act by racially polarizing and diluting the influence of Latino voters with at-large elections?

I have not seen any specific allegations and would not respond without seeing any specifics. The issue has risen, and we’re responding. We’re trying to respond in a positive way.

What would be the ideal way to structure the municipal government with future district elections?

Municipal governments are organized in a number of ways. Our largest cities trend toward a strong mayor, who is the chief executive and does not sit on the City Council, but has a veto on City Council actions. Those cities trend toward City Council members elected from geographic districts. Some cities (like Palm Springs) have a weak mayor with additional ceremonial responsibilities, but no additional authority. Such mayors sit as a member of City Council. Other cities rotate the mayors’ responsibility among the various members of City Council. This, along with a city manager as the chief administrative officer, is the most common municipal form of government. … We will evaluate every option, seek extensive public input and make our decisions by year-end. Our goal is the best form of government to address the needs of our city.

What is the role of the demographer hired by the city? Is there a deadline on his report?

We will employ an outside demographer who has worked with numerous California cities to develop reports that will allow the city to draw and select the district boundaries that are best for our city. In drawing boundaries, (the) goals (are): Maximize the goals of the California Voting Rights Act; prioritize creation of majority-minority districts; to the extent practical, keep organized neighborhoods intact; and maintain the principle that the best interest of the city as a whole remains the first responsibility of all elected officials. (The) process: Evaluate our demographics and structure of government; compare with and learn from other comparable cities, and recommend the structure of government that best achieves the goals of the California Voting Rights Act and the long-term needs of our city; and encourage and work through communication platforms to obtain participation from as many residents and stakeholders as possible in the process.

If we had district elections in place when you ran for the City Council, do you think you’d have won your district?

I hope that I would’ve won, but we will probably find it out when the time comes to run for re-election.

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