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12 May 2020

Two Odd Districts: The Palm Desert City Council's New Paradigm—One Part of the City Is Represented by One Person; the Rest Is Represented by Four

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The final Palm Desert district map. The final Palm Desert district map.

After a legal process that took nearly a year, the city of Palm Desert has finally moved to a district-based city voting system … sort of.

On April 30, the Palm Desert City Council—meeting online due to the COVID-19 pandemic—voted 5-0 to enact the new system. One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members, while the tentatively named Civic Center Core District will have one representative.

The City Council had also planned to adopt a ranked-voting system in advance of this year’s city elections, but instead decided to put that off for two years due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Karina Quintanilla is one of the two plaintiffs who sued the city in June of last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Similar suits have forced cities across the state, including other Coachella Valley cities, to move from at-large to district-based voting in recent years. During a recent phone interview, Quintanilla—who fought for a five-district system throughout the process—said her feelings on Palm Desert’s new voting system were decidedly mixed.

“I cannot say that I’m satisfied,” Quintanilla said. “I can say that I’m disappointed that we did not get the five districts. But I am pleased that we’ve started a conversation. When Lorraine (Salas, the co-plaintiff) and I were faced with the decision (whether to settle the lawsuit), we knew that it’s very difficult to get things right the first time. But our hope was to generate a conversation—a platform to launch forward to the five (districts option). That’s something that I feel we did achieve, so I feel very pleased with that component.

“What we really wanted, though, was the ability to have districts, because that would allow people to relate directly to one representative.”

Quintanilla and Salas agreed to a settlement with the city in November, launching a process in which city residents were asked to offer input on the new voting system. At the first public presentation on the matter in January, city representatives made the two-district system seem like a foregone conclusion, before taking a more open and honest approach in subsequent meetings. Still, throughout the entire map-creation process, not one five-district map was offered to the City Council by the National Demographics Corporation, a company hired by the city to guide the map-creation effort—despite the fact that a five-district outcome was the stated preference of Quintanilla and Salas.

“Our perspective and our desire was to simply make a civic impact and have more people fully represented on the council,” Quintanilla said. “We were just looking at: How do we improve the city? We didn’t feel that draining the city funds through a long, drawn-out lawsuit was going to deliver any benefit. And now I’m even happier about that (decision on our part), because we couldn’t have anticipated that there would be this global pandemic nor the economic impact.

“So now we’ve come full circle, and we’re OK with postponing the ranked-choice voting. The city has much more important things to do, like taking care of its residents, rather than making that shift in the electoral process.”

While Quintanilla said she views the new voting system as just one step in an evolving process, Palm Desert’s council members spoke as if the process was complete—even though the city, at the least, will need to revisit the map after the results of the 2020 Census are released.

“This has been a long, difficult and challenging process,” councilmember Sabby Jonathan said prior to the final vote. “I want to thank all of the residents who came in and offered their input, opinion and perspective. It did help shape the final result. I think this was a situation where there were a lot of competing pros and cons, and benefits and downsides and upsides, and at the end of the day, I’m hopeful, and I believe that we crafted a method for moving forward that creates tremendous balance for all of the concerns that have been expressed.”

The Independent asked Doug Johnson, the president of the National Demographics Corporation—the company hired to help with the map-making process—what the city would need to do once the Census results are released.

“Following the release of the 2020 Census data, the city will have to revisit the adopted map,” Johnson wrote in an emailed response. “If the current districts remain reasonably population-balanced and in compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act, the revisiting could be as simple as affirming the same lines. But the council does have the option to revise the lines even if population-balanced. It is, however, highly likely that the 2020 Census data will determine the districts are not sufficiently population-balanced, necessitating adjustments to at least bring them into compliance with federal law. California's ‘FAIR MAPS Act’ sets the minimum process the city has to follow for any post-2020 Census revisiting of the districts, including some timeline rules and a requirement for at least four public hearings or workshops.”

Beyond any changes the city may make after the Census data is released, there is always the possibility of another California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city and its unconventional new district map.

“According to the settlement agreement,” Quintanilla said, “Lorraine and I are barred from suing the city on this issue. So another resident will have to take over the helm and move it into phase two after the Census is over.”

Quintanilla, however, expressed optimism that the city would be open to input from residents moving forward.

“I had the opportunity to speak with councilwoman Kathleen Kelly, who was very gracious and very thoughtful,” Quintanilla said. “Moving forward, the ability to collaborate will make the city better.”

That olive-branch moment seemed to have resonated with Kelly, Palm Desert’s current mayor pro tem.

“I want, very enthusiastically and on behalf of the city, to thank the plaintiffs for collaborating to assess the appropriate implementation date for ranked-choice voting,” she said at the April 30 meeting. “They’ve shown a true interest in what’s best for the community, and we’re highly appreciative.”

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