Stampede Toward Municipal Ward Systems Locking In Advantages For Incumbents

Accusations that a second San Bernardino County city is opportunistically utilizing the rush to transition municipal electoral processes to ward systems to confer upon its incumbent officeholders advantages have arisen.
The same firm which assisted both Chino and Redlands draw up its electoral maps that critics say favor those cities’ current officeholders is now providing the same service to three other San Bernardino County cities where incumbent council members likewise voted to hire it to carry out demographic research and electoral map drawing preparatory to those cities adopting ward systems. An official with the company this week told the Sentinel that concerns the transition to district-based elections will solidify the hold that incumbents have on their respective official positions is misplaced.
Previously, Chino officials were elected at-large, meaning that the only requirement to run for the city’s four council positions was that the candidate be of the age of majority, legally reside within Chino and be registered and qualified to vote. After the city, along with a multitude of other Southern California municipalities were challenged under the California Voter Rights Act by the Malibu-based Shenkman Law Firm for engaging in what is referred to as racially polarized voting, it chose to alter its electoral process so that the city is divided into four wards, each of which is represented by a resident living within that ward. Chino’s mayor continues to be elected at large, meaning he or she can reside in any of the city’s voting wards.
Chino hired Glendale-based National Demographics Corporation to survey the city, determine its balance of ethnicities geographically and draft maps to meet the four-district criteria, which would, within reason, place as close as possible 19,496 residents, or one-fourth, of the city’s overall 77,983 population, into each electoral ward, such that each district was equal, or roughly equal, in the number of its constituents. National Demographics provided seven map options, involving both four council members and six, including the one ultimately accepted and put into place by the council.
There were a number of curiosities about the final outcome of the vote that followed the new district plan. Significantly, the system that was drawn up created districts in which it so happened that each of the two council members who vied for reelection last year, the first election cycle under the new system, and the two who would have been up for reelection in 2018, lived separately in one of the newly drawn wards, such that they would not need to run against one another come election time. As it turned out, Mayor Dennis Yates did not seek reelection and councilwoman Eunice Ulloa, a resident of the just-created Second District, ran to replace him. The two incumbents who benefited by the drawing of the districts who were up for reelection in 2016, Glenn Duncan and Tom Haughey, after having been reelected in 2012, vied in the race for their respective First and Fourth District council positions, which, again coincidentally, were deemed to be the first two districts to have their council representatives elected under the new ward system. No one opposed Duncan or Haughey. Ulloa prevailed in the mayoral election, capturing 16,683 votes or 68.08 percent to the 7,823 votes or 31.92 percent polled by the non-incumbent candidate, Brandon Villalpando, who ran unsuccessfully against her. Ulloa’s ascendancy to mayor created a vacancy on the council, since she was last elected as a councilwoman in 2014, so two more years yet remained on her council term.
Rather than hold a special election, the city council resolved to appoint Ulloa’s replacement for the next two years. Because the position to which she was elected in 2014 was an at-large one, any resident who was registered to vote was eligible to apply. Less than two months after no city resident had come forward to challenge incumbents Duncan or Haughey, a whopping 27 would-be office holders applied for consideration.
That so many would be interested in holding a council position when the perceived odds were fair and untainted by those running having to compete against incumbents with their built-in advantage of incumbency indicated a widespread perception that the system formulated by National Demographics Corporation, which was paid $32,000 for its efforts by Chino’s taxpayers based upon a vote of the city council, was rigged in favor of the incumbents.
Douglas Johnson, a principal in National Demographics Corporation said this is a gross misperception.
“The map for Chino is a very square map, except where the law requires that it not be quadrants, in the center of the city where there is a huge Latino voting block,” Johnson said.
According to the law and Supreme Court decisions, in drawing a map, race can’t be the predominate basis upon which lines are drawn but those lines can nonetheless be placed so as to create a voting district that ensures a majority of a protected class of voters live within the district as long as the district is reasonably compact, meaning that the boundaries cannot be drawn in such a way to exclude non-protected class neighborhoods.
Johnson said that in American politics, an advantage accrues to incumbents, but that has nothing to do with the circumstance in Chino where new districts were formed. He said the advantage of incumbency in Chino and elsewhere exists irrespective of whether an at-large or ward system is used to select government leaders.
“Incumbents have better name recognition and are always better known than their challengers,” he said. He added that those who took issue with the Chino map because it did not create a circumstance where incumbents were placed into the same wards were not considering geographical reality.
“It would take some crazy lines to put these guys together because they don’t live anywhere near one another. They are spread all over the city,” Johnson said. “To put them in the same district would have required drawing a map with fingers that went all the way across town. Should that have been done?”
As to the criticism leveled at the city for having initiated the vote in wards 1 and 4 to correspond with the end of Duncan and Haughey’s last at-large terms, Johnson said, “Why would you do it some other way? The Supreme Court says it could be done that way. Would you rather let some lawyer from Malibu dictate who the city’s elected officials are going to be? Why toss an official out of office like that? Isn’t it better to let the voters decide whether they want to reelect an incumbent? We are not going to intentionally use the demographer’s pen to throw someone the people have elected out of office.”
Johnson said the tables should be turned on those criticizing the Chino map, and that they should be asked, “What advantage do you think incumbents are getting and how would you do it differently.”
Johnson added that Chino was forced into making the change at the barrel of a litigative gun.
“Chino had to go fast,” he said, explaining that Shenkman’s firm “accidentally served court papers on Rancho Cucamonga. All the numbers and demographics were for Chino. From that, Chino learned that the law firm was set to sue Chino.” He said Chino moved expeditiously to head off the filing of the suit.
Moreover, Johnson said the Chino community, or at least that part of the Chino community that participated in the effort to provide input, was fully behind the plan.
“Every public comment offered at the Chino hearings endorsed the plan the council adopted,” he said. “There were some who were opposed to going to a district plan in general, but they accepted that the city had to do so because of the cost. The few comments we got endorsed the map.”
National Demographics Corporation has again been hit with accusations that it did the political bidding for the incumbents on the Redlands City Council when it drew up the map options for that city of 68,747 on the far eastern end of Inland Valley.
At its February 7 meeting, the Redlands City Council, after a good number of city residents expressed preferences for other maps offered by both the National Demographics Corporation and a separate citizens group, pushed to narrow its choice to two maps which favor four of the council’s incumbents – Mayor Paul Foster and council members Paul Barich, Jon Harrison, and Pat Gilbreath, all of whom live within the same two-and-a-half square mile expanse in South Redlands within the 36.427 square mile city. Those two maps favored by the council appear to have been drawn to accommodate and protect the four. One of those maps divides southeast Redlands, which geographically represents less than one fourth of the city, into three separate voting districts, what observers said was a clear effort to head off Foster and Barich having to run against one another. Indications were, however, that those maps would have faced a legal challenge.
This week, a healthy cross section of city residents, alerted to the prospect that the council incumbents were about to confer on themselves an advantage like that enjoyed by the Chino City Council members, showed up to let it be known that they favored maps that were not drawn with an eye to protecting the current Redlands political establishment. The alternative most enthusiastically embraced by the participating citizens was one drawn up by a group calling itself Redlands for Civic Engagement. That map, designated as Map D, placed Barich, Foster and Harrison in a single district, which would pit them against one another in the coming years if all three or two of them sought reelection.
Ultimately, the council rejected Redlands for Civic Engagement’s Map D, instead selecting three maps which conferred protection upon councilwoman Pat Gilbreath, councilmen Eddie Tejeda and Paul Barich, placing them in districts which exclude other incumbents. The three maps do, however, place Paul Foster and Harrison in the same district.
Though the protection given to the council is not across the board, a recurrent term used by many of the Redlands residents to describe the Redlands map was “gerrymandered.”
Gerrymander is defined by Merriam-Webster as 1: to divide (a territorial unit) into election districts to give one political party an electoral majority in a large number of districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible; 2: to divide (an area) into political units to give special advantages to one group.
Some insinuated that National Demographics Corporation was seeking to please the council, which ultimately made the decision to hire the company.
Johnson sought to defend his company’s performance in Redlands.
“We gave Redlands for Civic Engagement the data to draw the maps,” Johnson said. “That is why they were able to draw them. We gave them the technical data and the city council spent considerable time considering it, talking about it and analyzing it. They were told their map diluted Latino voting strength. The city reached out to give them help in adjusting it but still they have drawn a map that literally violates the Voting Rights Act. All the lawyers involved in the process say it is an illegal map that will present a legal risk if the city were to adopt it.”
That there is no pairing of incumbents in a ward, Johnson said, “is not true in Redlands.” He said that one of the districts is home to Foster and Harrison, such that they will need to run against one another if they wish to remain in office beyond their current terms.
Johnson suggested that the controversy relating to the move by a multitude of cities toward ward districts exists as a consequence of “the mess created by legislation,” meaning the California Voter Rights Act, which gives attorneys the ability to extort cities to adopt ward systems without risk, since plaintiff’s cannot be compelled to cover the cities’ legal costs if legal action under the act fails.
Nevertheless, Johnson said, the rationale for prompting cities to incorporate ward systems has some, though not absolute, philosophical legitimacy, since doing so might boost the electability of at least some of those who have long been political outsiders. He said splitting a larger at-large jurisdiction into ward districts “makes the electorate smaller and makes it easier for new candidates to reach the voters and decreases the advantage of incumbents in an at-large system.”
There is wide latitude in how the Act is applied, Johnson said. “Outside of racial gerrymandering, there is nothing illegal about selective map drawing,” Johnson said. “Whenever the term gerrymandering, which has a negative connotation, is used, it simply means the person making the comment doesn’t like the plan. Saying that a plan is gerrymandered means nothing. When I hear that, I ask the person to ‘Consider the map and explain what you would like changed.’”
Johnson took exception to the suggestion that his firm was profiteering by assisting incumbent elected officials in cities changing over to ward systems solidify their political advantage,
“You are implying that all of these cities have turned to us because we will do anything they want for money,” said Johnson. “That is not true. They come to us because we know the law and we will give them a map and electoral plan that will prevent them from being sued. I do not believe that is selective map drawing.”
He continued, “Every city in the state has hired my firm to do this work except one that allowed the plaintiff’s demographer to draw their lines and one other city that did the work in-house. If we were victimizing these cities, do you think they would hire us? All of our plans are drawn fully compliant with legal requirements for drawing maps and the Voters Rights Act. That is proven by the fact that we have drawn hundreds of plans for local districts, every one of which withstood legal challenges to them.”
With regard to the conflict of interest inherent in incumbent council members having the ultimate approval of how districts are drawn when those district lines will have an impact on their prospects for reelection, Johnson said such decisions were by the very nature of government the purview of the existing elected leadership. “Who else would make the decision?” he asked.
Redlands will at some point in the next two months ratify one of the maps under consideration, so to have it in place for the 2018 election when three council positions will be at stake. The other two council slots will be contested in the 2020 election.
Redlands spokesman Carl Baker told the Sentinel the city is paying National Demographics $20,800 for its services.
In the meantime, the cities of Fontana, Hesperia and Chino Hills have retained National Demographics Corporation to assist them in their purposed adoption of ward-based electoral systems.

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