Little Public Awareness Of Officials’ Manipulation of District Voting Terms

“Politicians are the lowest form of life on earth.”
– General George S. Patton

Playing out at present all over San Bernardino County – and throughout California and the rest of the United States, as well – is what is referred to as reapportionment, the reconfiguration of political jurisdictions in accordance with the 2020 Census, a procedure that is carried out every decade. The underlying concept is that governmental representation at all levels hinges on fairness and numerical integrity, such that congressional districts and state legislative districts, county supervisorial districts, city council districts and even fire, water and school district voting zones should be balanced in a way where the people’s representatives on those various decision-making bodies have an equal number of constituents and commensurate degree of power in rendering their decisions consistent with the fundamental principles of democracy.
This redistricting is something that members of the public – the governed – are only vaguely aware of. While a few civically-minded citizens here and there become involved in the process, with some drafting and submitting electoral maps of their own as suggestions as to how counties, cities, towns and agencies should conduct their electoral processes, the vast majority of the population takes little notice of the process or its implication beyond abiding by the final decisions that are rendered when they vote in accordance with the precincts and districts that have been set up for them.
Thus, few people are aware of how the redistricting process is often an underhanded and at once sneaky and brazenly corrupt manipulation of governmental authority. The perversion of the electoral process this entails is nearly universal within governments, tainting the concept of voting free from extraneous influences and entailing the connivance of a host of government contractors – consultants and demographers – who garner a profit for themselves while putting their imprimatur of professional analysis on a final product – electoral maps – that benefit the holders of public office at the expense of the political system’s outsiders, who include the overwhelming majority of the unsuspecting public at large.
The degree to which political districts and political districting has been manipulated in favor of incumbent politicians stayed relatively hidden in San Bernardino County until the middle of the last decade. County government has long – indeed from the founding of the county in 1853 – involved supervisorial districts. Yet such divisions were recognized as a necessity of the county’s 20,105-square mile expanse, which is more land than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Hampshire combined. Among San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities, only two utilized by-district voting in selecting their councils prior to 2014. At the federal level, involving congressional races, voting statewide was done by district. In addition, state legislative districts, those being for the Assembly and California Senate, were a part of a voting process involving districts. Manipulations of the state’s various legislative district maps were done primarily to benefit either or both the Republican or Democratic parties, in that the district lines were drawn so that a district would contain a sufficient number of voters of one of those parties or another to ensure that either a Democrat or a Republican would be elected. Democrats, for the most part, respected the Republicans’ turf; Republicans, in turn, respected the Democrats’ turf. Only in those districts where there was no real Republican or Democratic dominance were there real contests for the legislative seats at stake. In drawing those districts, generally, both the Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature cooperated with one another in drawing the maps, preserving for themselves “safe seats” in which they could seek reelection without being successfully challenged by a member of the opposite party. These arrangements, while not exactly a secret, did not create a sufficient negative reaction among the public to provoke a change to the way things are done. Moreover, those benefiting by such deals have been the lawmakers themselves, and for them there was and is not an incentive to reform a way of doing things – corrupt or not – that benefited and continues to benefit them personally, professionally and politically.
At the local level, where under California law offices of governmental representative are supposed to be nonpartisan, things were different. In most cities, council members were elected at-large. In only two San Bernardino County cities – San Bernardino and Colton – were there district or ward voting systems. In 2014, a group of lawyers, virtually all from outside of San Bernardino County, took stock of the political landscape, noting that in some of the county’s cities and towns the percentage of Latino representatives on their councils was less than the percentage of Hispanic residents. Insofar as the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 defined such circumstances as the product of “racially polarized” voting, those lawyers chose the City of Highland as a test case, demanding that the city adopt a by-district voting system by which, the theory went, majority Latino voting districts would come into existence, making it more likely that Hispanics would be elected to the city council. When the city dragged its feet, the lawyers sued. Despite a finding that racially polarized voting had not occurred in Highland, Judge David Cohn ruled that the city would need to adopt by-district elections as a means to cure the ethnic disparity on the city council.
Thereafter, a band of lawyers – again, ones based exclusively outside of San Bernardino County – inundated San Bernardino County cities with demands that they discontinue their at-large voting programs and make the changeover to by-district elections. In sending those letters, the lawyers sought to and did cash in on a provision of the California Voting Rights Act that allowed them to collect a $30,000 to $45,000 fee for writing such a letter from the city to which the letter was addressed if the city complied with the demand. Otherwise, if the city did not comply with the call to move to by-district elections, the lawyer or law firm sending the letter could take the city or town to court as had been done in the case of Highland. A lawyer or law firm prevailing in such a suit was entitled to the entirety of the law fees charged for prosecuting the case – potentially in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. If the lawyer or law firm lost the case, under the California Voting Rights Act, the city was not eligible to recovery its legal fees. In response, 15 San Bernardino County cities or incorporated towns beyond Highland, Colton and San Bernardino – Chino, Chino Hills, Upland, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Redlands, Yucaipa, Big Bear Lake, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Barstow, Apple Valley, Victorville and Hesperia have transitioned or are transitioning to holding district elections. The lawyers or law firms which precipitated those changes with their letters collected their $30,000 to $45,000 fees and moved on. None of the lawyers and none of the law firms followed through to ensure that the electoral wards or districts that were formed as a consequence of the transitions were drawn in keeping with the principle of enabling a more even racial or ethnic distribution of elected representatives in those cities and towns.
Rather, what occurred almost universally throughout San Bernardino County was that the officeholders in those jurisdictions opportunistically utilized the districting mandate to create elective districts or wards which conferred upon them, as incumbents, an electoral advantage going into future elections. They effectuated this because as the elected leadership in those cities and towns, they had the ultimate decision-making power over how those district maps were to be drawn and the timing of the elections that were to proceed.
While for the most part the city or town councils and their individual members did not themselves draw the electoral maps, the governmental entities they oversaw hired demographers and consultants to create the databases upon which map options were drawn, to integrate into the process information and input submitted by residents, and to thereafter facilitate and coordinate the drawing of maps so those who wanted to participate in the process in that way could do so. The demographers or consultants would ultimately provide a presentation of the map options to the city or town council which chose one of the options presented. With only rare exceptions, the maps chosen were ones that were drawn or gerrymandered to place incumbents into districts in which other incumbents were not placed, such that incumbents did not need to run against one another. Moreover, the demographers and consultants further presented to the councils sequencing, that is timing, options on the new district or ward elections to be held that in virtually every case made it so the lapsing of the incumbents’ final at-large terms corresponded with the election for the districts in which those incumbent council members’ election contests in their new districts were to take place. Taken together with the demonstrated advantage that incumbents statistically possess in the electoral process, those options provided the incumbent city council members throughout the county with a virtual lock on the offices they already held. In an overwhelming majority of the cases with only a few notable exceptions, the city and town councils throughout San Bernardino County selected the district maps and election sequencing options that benefited the incumbents and rejected any maps or election sequences that did not benefit them.
Incumbent officeholders enjoy multiple advantages over nonincumbents. Not only do those in office normally have superior name recognition, which often translates into more votes, than do those who are challenging them, they can more easily raise donations for their electioneering funds. Money from those campaign war chests can be used to conduct polling, run radio ads, buy billboard space, secure local television ads, purchase endorsements on slate mailers sent to voters in the weeks prior to an election, print and send mailers touting the incumbent and the job he or she has done while in office along with his or her accomplishments, print and send attack mailers dwelling on the shortcomings of opponents, pay for handbills that can be distributed door-to-door or defray the cost of phone banks to call voters and importune them for their votes. By ensuring that they are not running against another incumbent with the same advantages, incumbents have a substantially superior win-loss percentage over nonincumbents that is statistically demonstrable.
Consequently, in city after city in San Bernardino County, gerrymandered districts that were atrociously asymmetrical and illogical but which rendered incumbents re-electable while keeping them from having to compete against one another became the norm. The decisions on district and ward configurations and their timing stood as testimony to the ability of elected officials to engage in a decision-making process entirely designed and intended to benefit themselves irrespective of the interests of those they represent. It was as if one of the teams in a sporting event was given the task of delineating the rules by which the game was to be played while simultaneously allowing its players to serve as the referees.
Where deviations or exceptions to this existed, there was a demonstrable ulterior political motive. One example of that pertains to governance in Upland.
In the City of Gracious Living, the transition to district voting took place in 2018. To its credit, Upland avoided the grotesque configurative gerrymandering of its electoral districts that occurred in some other cities, utilizing what was a dual east-west and north-south bifurcation of the city to form quadrants and create four approximately equal council districts, using the basic dividing lines of San Antonio Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, with some slight deviation that involved moving the north-south border of Foothill Boulevard up to 14th Street on the east side of the city and the east-west border of San Antonio Avenue over to Euclid Avenue to obtain rough numerical parity among all four districts. Nevertheless, with the advent of district elections in 2018 Upland officials finagled, or at least attempted to rig, their elective system through the sequencing of the contests.
Two years previously, in the last at-large election that the City of Upland would conduct in 2016, Janice Elliott had been elected to the council. In relatively short order, Elliott had demonstrated herself by mid-spring 2017 as being out of step with the overriding consensus on the council, having dissented in action and votes taken by the council majority with regard to dissolving the Upland Municipal Fire Department in favor of a contractual arrangement with the County of San Bernardino to have its fire department provide fire protection, paramedic and emergency response to the city’s 76,000 residents. She also took stances that were averse to those of her colleagues on other issues that proved controversial, such as selling off some 12 percent of the city’s landmark Memorial Park so it could be used as a parking facility for another Upland community institution, San Antonio Hospital. Elliott had further manifested what the balance of her council colleagues considered to be intransigence by alleging that the council, in its closed sessions, had initiated discussions that were not properly announced in a generic sense ahead of those closed-door deliberations, and that the panel of which she was a discontented member was thus in violation of the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law. The council majority, in an effort to rid itself of the non grata Elliott, utilized the sequencing of its district elections in an effort to legislate the council position she held out from underneath her. Elliott’s 2016 election had entitled her to a four-year hold on her at-large council position, meaning she was not due to seek reelection until 2020. Calculating that she would be content to remain in the council post she had already been elected to, the council majority scheduled the election for the newly created District 2 position on the council to take place in the 2018 election rather than in the 2020 election. The council also scheduled the city’s first District 3 and first District 4 elections for 2018. Two of Elliott’s council rivals, Gino Filippi and Carol Timm, were District 3 and District 4 residents, respectively. They had last been elected to at-large council terms in 2014, so they were due to run for reelection in 2018, which they did. Filippi and Timm, in scheduling the district elections going forward, had extended themselves the advantage of holding an election in their districts of residency just as their then-current terms were to end. They had not provided Elliot with that courtesy, necessitating that she run for election in the First District two years after her initial election to the council if she wanted to remain in office past 2020. If she had neglected to declare her candidacy in 2018, then when her at-large term expired in 2020 she would not be eligible to run for the council, as she was a District 2 resident, and the only positions up in the 2020 Upland municipal race were to be that of mayor and District 1 councilor. It thus appeared as if Elliott’s council adversaries – the majority consisting of Mayor Debbie Stone and Councilman Sid Robinson along with Filippi and Timm – had used their ability to rig the district voting process to outmaneuver Elliott.
Elliott, however, did not take what was being dished her way supinely. She declared her candidacy for the Second District post in 2018, campaigned as energetically as she had two years previously, brought attention to the way in which her council adversaries had sought to exploit the newly-created district voting system against her and to their own benefit. Elliott won. Filippi and Timm, meanwhile, failed to gain reelection. Two years later, in 2020, Stone was voted out as mayor.
The 2018 election cycle in Upland served as a demonstration of two things. The first was how elected officials can, or at least try to, tilt the playing field in their favor and to the disadvantage of their opposition. It also demonstrated how political exploitation can be stemmed if voters are given a clear illustration of how politicians are selfishly manipulating the rules of governance in their own interest,.
What occurred in Upland in 2018, however, is a rarity. In the overwhelming number of cases – those in Apple Valley, Hesperia, Victorville, Chino, Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Redlands, Big Bear, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms – as well as within Highland, where the matter went before a judge, the districts drawn ended up favoring incumbents. Indeed, it seemed in most cases, the incumbents were able to lock in for themselves an advantage so difficult to overcome that the only realistic prospect that those officeholders might lose their grip on the positions they hold consists of their eventual decisions to leave office.
So wantonly and greedily did politicians not only in San Bernardino County but throughout the State of California conduct themselves in drawing up electoral maps benefiting themselves personally and politically that the California legislature in 2019 passed the California Fair Maps Act, which was intended to encourage cities and counties to consider standardized and fair redistricting criteria that prioritize communities during the process of drawing district lines. Despite the limited reform the act provides for, there remain tolerances in the law that give local elected officials the ability to tailor district boundaries to their favor.
With the reapportionment that is ongoing now in preparation for the 2022 election and every election thereafter for the next decade – 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 – what is on display is a replay of what occurred when those cities adopted by-district elections. The cities and towns have the option – based upon the 2020 Census data – of completely redrawing their district maps, ridding themselves of what in many cases are obscenely configured districts that were originally gerrymandered to include within each separate district an incumbent council member. To make such accommodations in some cases, council members who lived on the same street just a few doors down from one another had the district lines for their cities drawn between their homes. Some districts in some cities feature a long peninsula extending deep into a neighboring district or in some cases through a neighboring district and then into the next to include the residence of an incumbent council member. In a few municipalities, particularly in ones where an incumbent has chosen to not seek reelection, the districts are being reconfigured into more compact and geometrically reasonable configurations. In others, efforts to preserve districts with one incumbent in each are being made, in such a way that the borders are more even and less irregular. Still, the priority in San Bernardino County city after city and in the county’s two incorporated towns appears to be to protect incumbents by preventing the prospect of them running against one another.
One case in point is Chino. In 2016, the city’s districts were drawn and the contests in them scheduled to accommodate the council incumbents. 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 by coincidental design, 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. The sequencing for a third incumbent, then-Councilwoman Eunice Ulloa, was irrelevant, as that year she ran for the at-large mayor’s position, which was opened as a consequence of then-Mayor Dennis Yates opting out of seeking reelection. Scheduled for the 2018 election were the Second and Third District posts. Then-incumbent Councilman Earl Elrod, who had been reelected to office in 2014, was a resident of the city’s District 2. Thus, he too was given the benefit of competing in a district in which no other members of the council resided and where the first by-district election took place just as his then-current term on the council was to end. In the years since, Duncan, who was elected to six four-year terms on the council, and Haughey, who was elected to five four-year terms on the council, as well as Elrod, who was elected to five four-year terms on the council, have all left office of their own volition. The Chino City Council incumbents now consist of Councilman Chris Flores representing District 1; Councilman Walt Pocock, representing District 2; Councilman Marc Lucio, representing District 3; and Councilwoman Karen Comstock, representing District 4.
The City Council at a workshop on February 7 considered multiple redrawn maps. Ultimately, the council’s members tentatively settled on a map that made some substantial shifts to two of the district’s borders, which included removing much or most of the former agricultural preserve from District 4 and placing most of the former preserve into District 3, while expanding District 4, which currently covers the city’s south end, further north on the west side.
District 1 continues to include downtown Chino and the lower density agricultural areas north of the 60 Freeway.
District 2 covers the northeast portion of Chino.
The map leaves Flores in District 1; Pocock in District 2, Lucio in District 3 and Comstock in District 4.
Pocock, who was appointed to replace the late Mark Hargrove, and Lucio, who was elected in 2018, must run in this year’s election to remain in office. Flores and Comstock are due to stand for reelection this in 2024.
The City of Big Bear Lake, which lies slightly over 51 miles from Chino as the crow flies and 72 miles by road, offers a window on the phenomenon of past and current gerrymandering of city council districts for the express purpose of benefiting existing elective officeholders.
Big Bear Lake is San Bernardino County’s second smallest city population-wise at 5,303 residents and third smallest city in terms of land area, at 6.42 square miles. Because it does not have a directly elected mayor and the council instead appoints one of its members to serve in that capacity and preside over its meetings, the city in 2018 created five council districts. As in all of the county’s other cities, those districts were designed to benefit the council members, and Big Bear Lake has as radically asymmetrical council districts as any city in the county.
On February 7, as the council at its regular meeting was examining the city’s districting options for the next decade, Scott Smith, an attorney with the law firm of Best Best & Krieger who is advising the city with regard to how in can go about setting its district boundaries over the next ten years, said that the kindest way he could describe Big Bear’s Lake’s current electoral map was “eccentric in terms of shape,” and that it was marred with district contours that were “peninsulas and jetties.” In addition to not being compactly or symmetrically drawn, Smith noted of the current district map that the numbering system used to designate the districts is somewhat irregular, with the relative logic of the five districts seemingly designated as one, two and three, four and five based upon their furthest northward projections, though the districts do not project numerical consistency when considered with regard to their east to west progression, in which case they proceed 5, 1, 3, 2 and 4.
Councilman Alan Lee, who has been on the city council since 2020, observed that “The way that our map was drawn initially didn’t appear to make either common sense or business sense.”
Councilman Randall Putz, who has been on the city council since 2014 and participated in approving its electoral map four years ago, acknowledged that the district had been gerrymandered to shore up the electability of those already on the council, indicating the theory or philosophy that officeholders who had been previously selected by the voters merited special consideration in waging future elections. Putz said a factor in the irregular configuring of the districts was an attempt to include as many of the Big Bear community’s different aspects – those being retail, ski, tourist, and resort elements – in each district to the degree possible, which he said was intended to bring about a “balance” on the council “to hopefully make motivation for representation [of the district] more even.”
Putz still the same openly admitted that political consideration had a lot to do with how the districts are shaped.
“When we did this back in 2018, that was before the Fair Maps Act, and so we [were] motivated … and guided… to respect the wishes of the voters and not knowingly eject someone from their seat, not intentionally doing that, out of respect to who[m] the voters had voted in.”
Upon hearing Putz’s explanation, Lee said, “The motivation was to preserve the seat of the incumbents and I appreciate the reason, the history … is that the council felt at the time it wanted to be ‘respectful of the voters’ will.’ That at least helps me understand how my district got so convoluted.”
Lee said that if the districts to be put in place were logically drawn, contests between incumbents would likely be in the offing.
“The reality is, right now, I think four of us probably live within a mile of each other and some of us closer than that,” Lee said.
Lee obliquely noted that City Hall was geared toward sustaining the status quo politically, and would likely abet the council in drawing districts that will keep its members in place. He indicated his preference for drawing what were the simplest and most logical map lines, rather than configuring the city’s electoral map to perpetuate the incumbents’ hold on their respective offices.
“I want to appreciate a professional staff recommendation and to take the politics out of it to the extent that we can,” he said. “I’m more guided and persuaded by the professional recommendation of staff, and I’m not talking about city staff. I’m talking about those that did the analysis. If it calls for us to run against each other, then it calls for us to run against each other. I think we ought to put the needs of the community over our political interests.”
Smith of Best Best & Krieger pointed out that in the effort to redraw the districts more compactly, different boundary lines had been shifted such that residents and therefore council members in some cases were moved into different districts. In this way, Smith said, while voters under the current map were on a cycle to vote for a council member once every four years, some of those moved into a new district might only go two years between voting for a council member and some others might go six years between voting for a member of the council. Similarly, some of the maps proposed would create for some of the officeholders a situation similar to what had confronted Elliott in Upland, whereby serving out the council member’s current term would result in that member being unable to run for office two years hence because the new district in which the council member would reside was represented by someone elected in what is now the current election cycle.
Councilwoman Perri Melnick enunciated the philosophy that both the voters and the members of the council should be spared having their electoral rhythm thrown off. “I do believe in maps that have less disruption of the election cycle,” she said.
Smith, while referencing all 18 maps, which the council had the opportunity to review prior to the meeting, previewed just three during the meeting, the ones designated as options 1, 5A and 5B, which were recommended in that order.
Option 1, Smith said, retains the core of the existing districts and disrupts the fewest number of voters, while yet creating more linear borders and creating district configurations that are more compact than the radically asymmetrical districts in the city’s existing electoral map. Nevertheless, the map keeps all of the city’s councilors in their currently numbered separate districts.
Maps 5A and 5B favor compactness over continuity, Smith said, and entail a simpler set of districts that are relatively distinguishable as running east to west or west to east with what are north to south district lines. Map 5A uses major corridors and other markers as dividing lines, with the numeration running left to right, that is west to east, he said. Map 5A generally does not contain the core of existing districts 2 or 3, according to Smith. Map 5A has a pocket of residents in the Snow Summit area whose voting pattern is to be deferred for two years as they move from District 2 to District 1. Other voters in the district will see their voting opportunity either accelerated, that is taking place two years sooner, or won’t be impacted in terms of election timing. Map option 5 A has council members Lee and Putz living in District 1.
Snow Summit is currently in District 5.
Map 5B is likewise compact and represents numeration and orientation that is what Smith called the “reverse” of Map 5A. Map 5B generally does not retain the core of existing Districts 1, 2 and 3, Smith said. In it, a large number of residents in the center of the city area who under the current map would vote this year are deferred to 2024 in next voting, as they move from districts 2 and 3 to District 1. The voting of the other residents in those districts are accelerated or not impacted. Map option 5B has council members Lee and Putz living within District 3.
At one point, Councilman Lee remarked, “I suppose it’s all political.”
Indeed, there is an argument to be made that is the case.
While the council in Big Bear Lake is a relatively cohesive set, Lee qualifies as the one dissonant voice among its members. The difference he represents has become increasingly noticeable among the city’s residents over the now nearly 15 months he has been in office. Some residents in the largely resort community have sided with the council majority. Others back Lee. Yet others still are unaware of the differences or are on the fence.
Mayor Rick Herrick asked for the council members to size up the map options and express their estimation of what would best serve the city.
Councilwoman Melnick expressed her preference for Map 1. Councilwoman Bynette Mote said she was most impressed with Map 5B, Map 12, Map 13 and Map 14. Putz said he was attracted to Map 1 “as the least disruptive.” He said he was even more in favor of Map 5B. Mayor Herrick said his priorities were Option 1 first and Map 5B second.
Councilman Lee was reluctant to express a preference, saying, “I need more information. I am not prepared to formulate a consensus on a fast track. I want us to be on a slow track, and I want us to be on a deliberative track. If necessary, I want us to study and appreciate all of the deviations for all options, and right now I don’t think – I’ll speak for myself, although I suspect others do not have a full grasp of this. On this issue I want to be guided by subject area experts and the community implications and I just don’t have that at this time. I looked at 1, 5A and 5B, because you [Smith] indicated from your professional perspective that is what you would recommend if you were so asked. So, I gave that a presumption of correctness, but I would still need to fully understand it. It sounds like you are saying we’ll understand it better once we make a selection. I’m saying the flipside of that is true. If I understand it, it may not be selected. I think we need to put our foot on the brakes here. On this issue, because of the long-term implication – and we only do this every ten years – we need to be a little more deliberate. I am not comfortable with a consensus this evening.”
“I think that’s where we’re going, to more deliberation,” said Mayor Herrick. “We’re not making a decision.”
As such, the Big Bear Lake City Council in considering its district map for the next decade is at a crossroads. The four-member council majority is in the position of asking itself whether the council should collectively accept a map that leaves the council members in separate districts, such that they continue to live with Lee among their ranks for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, the council majority’s members are contemplating – calculating, it seems – whether they should utilize their authority as the city’s ultimate decision-makers to maneuver Lee out of office by orchestrating something similar to what the city council majority in Upland attempted to do with Elliott in 2018.
The consensus, as framed by Mayor Herrick, was that they will return on March 1 to make a decision on whether to go with Map 1 or Map 5B.
-Mark Gutglueck

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