Chino Hills Council Draws Borders Protecting Members’ Political Turf

Chino Hills, which a little less than five years ago earned distinction and praise for not creating electoral districts that across the board benefited the city’s incumbent council members, this week erased its reputation as one of the few cities in San Bernardino County not headed by a slew of politicians whose first priority extends to ensuring their political primacy.
In setting the boundaries for the city council districts that will be in place in the county’s southwesternmost municipality during the 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 election cycles, the council’s five members locked in for themselves advantages in the next several races they will need to run in to remain on the council.
Historically in San Bernardino County, only the cities of San Bernardino and Colton had city councils in which the members were elected by ward or district. Beginning in 2014, a group of lawyers based outside of San Bernardino County – Lancaster-based R. Rex Parris, Milton C. Grimes of Los Angeles, Malibu-based Kevin Shenkman and Matthew Barragan of Los Angeles – began assailing the lion’s share of San Bernardino County’s other cities and incorporated towns with demands that they move to by-district or by-ward voting. Parris, Grimes, Shenkman and Barragan based those demands on allegations that there was a pattern of racially-polarized or ethnically-polarized voting in those cities and towns which had resulted in fewer members of certain ethnic or racial minorities – essentially Hispanics – being elected to those municipalities’ councils percentagewise than the percentage of Hispanics within their various and respective populations.
Since the terms of the California Voting Rights Act made it both expensive and difficult for cities to contest such claims of ethnically-polarized or racially-polarized voting even in circumstances in which the claims were invalid, most cities simply chose to convert their electoral processes to ones in which members of their councils were elected to represent the district in which they lived through elections in which voters were restricted to voting only with regard to the district in which they reside. The California Voting Rights Act contained a provision by which an attorney making such a by-district voting demand of a city would then be eligible to receive a $30,000 to $45,000 fee from the city for having written such a demand letter that was complied with. Consequently, in virtually every case where a city made a transition to by-district or by-ward voting, the attorney would collect that fee, and discontinue any further involvement in or monitoring of the election system transition.
This left the cities making those transitions free to carry out the election process conversions in any way in which they saw fit. Often this meant that the conversion of a given city’s elections into ones in which minority members were more likely to be elected in the past did not take place. Even more often – indeed in well in excess of 90 percent of the cases – what happened was the cities set up districts in which the incumbents serving at the time the transitions were made were provided with an advantage against any of their emerging competitors for office.
One of the ways in which this manifested was the gerrymandering of the districts such that the district maps that were created put district boundaries between those who were in office, making it so incumbents did not need to run against incumbents. Moreover, the cities would engage in sequencing of the elections such that the terms for those seeking to be elected to represent the newly created districts were timed to begin just as the terms of the at-large council positions the council members who were eligible to run in the new districts ended. This was a baldly political and self-serving manipulation of the electoral process, and in city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city in San Bernardino County where the transition to district elections had occurred, those in office took advantage of the power and authority that had been entrusted to them to further advance their political careers.
Incumbents already possess an advantage over non-incumbents in terms of name recognition with the general public, which makes voters more likely to vote for them. In addition, incumbency makes it easier to convince political donors to provide those running for office with contributions to their political war chests. That money 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. Placing themselves into districts where they need not run against other incumbents with the same advantages they possess confers on those incumbents an even further leg up, as is demonstrated by the substantially superior win-loss percentage incumbents have over non-incumbents nationally, throughout California, regionally, at the county level and locally.
Just like the towns of Apple Valley and Yucca Valley and the cities of Chino, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, Twentynine Palms, Big Bear, Hesperia, Barstow, Fontana, Highland and later Ontario, Chino Hills in 2018 was forced to embrace district elections. Unlike virtually all of those cities and towns, however, Chino Hills had resisted the temptation to put into place a map in which the districts had been drawn to benefit those who were then in office. While the city did hire outside consultants and demographers to assist in the electoral map drawing effort, the map ultimately selected for Chino Hills in June 2017 for use beginning with the 2018 election was one that was drawn up by two citizens, those being Brian Johsz and Richard Austin. The city’s consultant, the National Demographics Corporation, provided the city with four maps which divided the city into five districts, one of which included districts that kept all five council members in separated districts. That map was presented in keeping with National Demographics Corporation principal Douglas Johnson’s recognition that most politicians want to remain in office and they have both the power and reach to provide themselves with an advantage in terms of how electoral districts get drawn. Accordingly the National Demographics Corporation gave the Chino Hills City Council the option of conferring just such an advantage on itself.
Worth noting is that the council as it was then composed, consisting of Ray Marquez, Art Bennett, Cynthia Moran, Peter Rogers and Ed Graham, rejected the option of adopting the map that put all five of them in different districts. Instead, they adopted the Johsz/Austin map. That map created districts in which three of the council members were placed in a district by themselves, two of the incumbents resided in the same district and one district had no incumbent. Specifically, the map put Ray Marquez in District 1, Peter Rogers in District 2, Art Bennett in District 3 and Ed Graham and Cynthia Moran in District 5.
As it turned out, not too long after the map was adopted, Graham, one of the original members of the city council when Chino Hills incorporated in 1991, resigned. He was replaced, notefully, by Johsz, a resident of District 4, who was appointed to fill in for Graham until his term expired in 2018.
Marquez and Rogers were elected without opposition in 2018; Johsz was retained in office in 2018 with three opponents running against him; Bennett and Moran were elected in 2020, with Bennett defeating three challengers and Moran unopposed.
In accordance with the 2020 Census, all jurisdictions throughout the country and California were due last year to redraw their electoral maps and the boundaries therein, a process known as reapportionment, to ensure numerical uniformity, or uniformity within a range of 10 percent presumptively considered to be in accordance with U.S. and California constitutional provisions. Because of delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there were delays which postponed many cities’ adoptions of the new maps. Chino Hills was among the last of the county’s cities to conclude the process. It did so this week at its March 22 meeting.
In at least some respects, Chino Hills complied, or ostensibly complied, with the intent spelled out in the California Voting Rights Act in terms of enabling minority groups to express themselves through the electoral process. The city made some relatively minor shifts of boundaries to accommodate some slightly uneven geographical population growth within the 44.7-square mile city over the last decade. With a city population in the 2020 Census of 85,695, each district was supposed to have, ideally, 17,139 residents within its confines. The map the council ultimately chose was drafted by Chino Hills resident Jeff Vaka, with some minor tweaking here and small adjustments there.
While in most of the rest of San Bernardino County, it is Latinos considered to be historically unrepresented on the various town and city councils, Chino Hills is heavily populated with those of Asian extraction, and there are no Asians on the council.
According to the city, the districts that were put into place Tuesday match the goal of providing the city’s residents with a fair shot at electing Asian-American representatives.
According to the National Demographics Corporation, which remains as the city’s consultant in determining how its districts are to be drawn, District 1 has a 53 percent concentration of Asian-Americans and District 2 boasts a 52 percent concentration of Asian-Americans.
The highest concentration in the number of Latinos in any one district is in District 4, where 41 percent of the population is Hispanic.
The white population in Chino Hills is uniformly a minority throughout Chino Hills, as District 1 is 21 percent Caucasian, District 2 is 20 percent white; District 3 stands at 36 percent of primarily European ancestry, District 4 is 17 percent Caucasoid and 23 percent in District 5 register as predominantly Aryan.
Similarly, the black population is static throughout the city at 4 percent in all districts except District 5, which is 6 percent African-American.
The map managed to confer advantages on all five current officeholders in the city. Marquez remains in District 1 at the north and western end of the city, abutting Los Angeles County. Rogers is within the Second District on the eastern side of the city primarily to the north, the densely populated section that is contiguous with the City of Chino to the east. Bennett’s resident falls within the even more densely populated Third District just south of the Second District, and it is also snuggled up against the city limits with Chino. Johsz’s Fourth District stretches all the way across the city from the Orange County line on the middle southwest side to Fairfield Ranch along the eastern border with Chino. Moran’s District 5 is the southernmost, largest and most sparsely populated portion of Chino Hills, contiguous with Chino to the east, Riverside County to the southeast and south, and Orange County and Chino Hills State Park on the southwest.
Marquez, Rogers and Johsz are due to stand for election this year if they are to remain in office after December. Bennett and Moran must stand for election in November 2024 or leave office the following month.
-Mark Gutglueck

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