Member of California Redistricting Commission describes what to watch out for in Austin redistricting
One of the 14 members of the California Redistricting Commission was the featured speaker at today’s luncheon hosted by Austinites for Geographic Representation and sponsored by the Austin Area Research Organization and League of Woman Voters Austin Area.
Attorney Angelo Ancheta is director of the Katherine and George Alexander Community Law Center and an associate clinical professor at Santa Clara University, where he teaches on subjects including election law, voting rights, and immigration. He came to Austin at his own expense and with no other business here to help educate the community about what to expect going forward.
Ancheta’s experience in drawing maps for California, a state with 38 million people, offers good insights into what lies ahead for the City of Austin and its 845,000 people.
In fact, the plan for Austin’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to implement the 10-1 plan approved by voters last November was adapted from the California process by Austin attorney Steve Bickerstaff, and then tweaked by Austin attorney Fred Lewis to satisfy the consensus among Austinites for Geographic Representation, which got the measure on the ballot through a petition drive that gathered some 33,000 signatures.
Bickerstaff will introduce the panelists on a program starting at 6:30pm tonight in the Bass Lecture Hall at the University of Texas.
Ancheta said that Austin is doing in one fell swoop a lot of important things: expanding the City Council, creating council districts, and creating a new commission to put all that together.
Although he noted that Austin’s process for drawing council districts was modeled on California’s system, a key difference is that the Austin process is not partisan. (Before his talk Ancheta told The Austin Bulldog that the California commission consisted of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four others. And the maps it ultimately recommended required approval by at least nine members voting, of which at least three members of each faction had to vote in favor.)
Ancheta said the California commission approved three maps on votes of 13-1 and the fourth map was approved on a vote of 12-2.
In drawing maps, the California commission was barred from considering where incumbents lived, he said, “and that’s different from how redistricting is normally done.”
“We had a big task and a short time to do it, about eight months to put together a staff, consultants, and do outreach. We did two draft maps and used live web streaming to gather more input.”
Ancheta said the commission held 34 hearings and about 2,700 people came to testify. The commission accepted comments through the Internet, e-mail, and faxes, and wound up with some 20,000 pieces of information to consider.
Some of the hearings were “raucous, noisy,” he said and we had to “quieten them down occasionally.”
People will be talking about the proposed districts once Austin’s commission gets to the point of drawing maps and people will have disagreements, “but at some point you have to draw maps,” he said. “You will never be able to please everybody, but you will make a good attempt and have a good product. It’s not a perfect process.”
“The is a great exercise in democracy,” Ancheta said, “a great exercise in transparency.”
Questions and answers
When the audience got the opportunity to ask questions, Art Olbert, the webmaster for Austinites for Geographic Representation, asked if the California commission had problems with legislative interference in the process and what happens if the Austin City Council interferes.
Ancheta replied that while it’s not in the best interest of the city to mess up things for the future city councils, we can’t be naive. “Make sure your council doesn’t try to undermine your commission. Make sure the process is fair. If you need X dollars for the process and the council gives you a third of that, it can be a problem.” he emphasized that he was not accusing anyone.
Linda Curtis, campaign coordinator for Austinites for Geographic Representation, said the City Council has already approved funding of $140,000 for the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Retired State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos asked Ancheta to identify the most difficult part of the redistricting process.
Ancheta said that’s when you hear inconsistent testimony and have to reconcile it. “You have to make hard choices.” He said the commission struggled over how to draw districts in a part of Los Angeles with changing demographics and how that affected minority representation.
A woman asked Ancheta to name three things to do and three to avoid.
To do, he said, one: measure your budget, time, and deadlines. “I think we were overambitious and tried to cram too much in too short of time.” Two: “Look at shared leadership. We had rotating chairs and vice chairs” to avoid the possibility of someone locked into a position being able to guide to process for too long. Three: “Keep the process as open as possible.” Webcasting was important part of the process. “We didn’t draw lines outside of the full public process.”
To avoid, he said, One: Don’t get too ambitious about public hearings. Two: Before putting out draft maps, be sure you’ve done your homework. Three: Don’t try to do too much.
Fred Lewis said that the public hearing process seems really important, as the commission will not be able to rely solely on statistics.
Ancheta said public testimony is important. “Numbers alone will not tell you everything that’s happening.”
He said the commission will have to get down to the smallest level. “That’s what people think about. You have to draw a line somewhere. There has to be logic, but you need micro-level information” and that comes from public testimony.
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