SELMA – The latest meeting on Selma’s new City Council election process didn’t end before conditions on citizens' maps were being suggested by the mayor that the city’s attorney said could not be put in place.

During the Sept. 3 City Council meeting, Mayor Scott Robertson said citizens who previously submitted district election maps would either all have to revamp and submit their maps, or he would accept none at all.

“The only stipulation I would say, and I hope the Council would agree, is if you’re going to submit a map, you’ve got to submit eight maps because there’s no one map you can privilege over the others. I think that should be the criteria for submitting additional maps,” Robertson said.

City Attorney Bianca Sparks Rojas said any member of the public had a right to submit “any map that they choose. We can’t condition the submission of one map [on the] submission of eight maps.”

Two of the other Council members did not agree with that suggestion and asked the hired demographers - National Demographics - to instead tweak citizens’ maps so they could be considered at the next meeting scheduled for Sept. 16 at City Hall.

The process of moving to district elections, instead of the current at-large system, is so the City can comply with the California Voting Rights Act signed into law in 2002.

This was the first of two public meetings where citizens were allowed to submit their ideas on how districts should be drawn to determine future City Council elections. The maps had to be submitted by Aug. 19 to be considered at this meeting. Any revised maps could then be submitted by Sept. 6 to be considered at the Sept. 16 meeting.

Residents turned in eight maps. Since they did not have knowledge of the city’s population in each block, they used major streets and neighborhoods to design their districts instead.

Federal law requires that the most recent Census’ population data be used. For Selma, that means 23,720 residents must divided into five districts. Thus, the goal is to have 4,744 people in each district with a variance of 10 percent allowed.

The citizens’ districts were not balanced and thus, this first set of maps cannot legally be used. But now that a link to a Census tool was put on the City’s website, citizens could use that to either adjust their already submitted maps, or draw entirely new ones.

The mayor, however, wanted to put restrictions on how many maps could be submitted by the public. Later during the council reports, he even characterized the citizens’ efforts to submit revamped maps as “dirty tricks and sour grapes.” He also stated it would take more than that to “get us out, if the people put us here.”

The citizens’ maps would pit Robertson in an election race against Councilmembers Louis Franco and Jim Avalos in the 2020 election, and possibly later against John Trujillo and Sarah Guerra in the 2022 election.

National Demographics had been hired in May for $44,750 to lead the City through the districting process. One of their senior consultants, Shalice Tilton, was given instructions by the Council to create three maps with district representation in the Downtown area, the west side of town and what’s known as the barrio in the southwest portion of town.

“The most important things are communities of interest. These are respecting neighborhoods,” she said.

Although it’s not legally required, the three maps drawn up by National Demographics - labeled tan, purple and olive - are created in such a way that each current council member is considered to be in a different district, even though they all live in the northeast portion of town.

Residents called that tactic “unethical.”

“The way that the lines are drawn, I just don’t see it as being very balanced,” Selma resident Theresa Salas said.

Another Selma resident, Sandi Niswander, agreed stating the intent of the California Voting Rights Act is so people could vote for candidates from their area. The maps the Council asked for work “against the very thing that you wanted to do when you create districts” and are “drawn in very strange ways,” Niswander said.

Niswander asked if the citizens’ maps could be adjusted to meet the population balance criteria.

“Maybe there are two people from the sitting council in one district, but it would be more logical for the community. We’re here for the community. We’re here to do a districting. If you’re going to basically gerrymander it, not because of authenticity, but because of wanting to have each councilperson in one district, to me that’s unethical. You’re not looking out for the best interest of the community, but for yourselves.”

Councilman Louis Franco asked the demographer to look into balancing some of the submitted maps so they could at least be considered.

“So it doesn’t appear that we are just looking at our own self-interest and we really are putting the community forward. I’d rather have [the demographer] just do it blind without any direction [from us] and see what it looks like.”

Tilton said it would be possible and asked for direction as to how to proceed.

The mayor objected asserting that district lines couldn’t be drawn where there would be two or more councilmembers.

“The issue is legality because a lot of these maps [submitted by residents] have multiple council members in the same area, which you can’t do,” Robertson said.

This however is false, Tilton said.

“You can do that,” the demographer said. Locally, the City of Kingsburg transitioned to district elections and in preparation for that 2018 race, districts were drawn in such a way that sitting council members wound up in the same district.

Mayor Robertson then asserted it would be “really hard” to tell where council members lived without the interactive tool. He added that it would also cost more money to have the demographers create more maps. The demographer later said she wasn’t sure if there would be any additional expense.

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“That, I wouldn’t be able to answer today. Typically our proposal is to prepare two to three maps, so to go from two to three to eight [maps]?”

Franco suggested that their current addresses and seats simply not be considered in at least one of the maps and to “just draw what’s best for the community, and see where we live after that.”

Robertson then asserted that drawing districts that way would be used to “get particular councilmembers out of office.”

Franco responded that wasn’t the intent, but the mayor was adamant.

“It shouldn’t be used for that purpose. That’s refuting the whole districting process,” Robertson said. Later he added, “I see this district process being perverted, if you use it to get rid of a couple of council people by, you know, putting them all in the same district.”

If the demographer’s maps and voting sequencing suggestions are used, the mayor’s seat, Franco’s and Councilman Jim Avalos’ seat would come up for election in 2020. Then, Councilmembers John Trujillo and Sarah Guerra’s seats would be up for election in 2022. Those final two councilmembers would finish out their terms regardless of where the district lines are drawn initially.

Robertson continued to argue through the meeting against having more maps drawn up.

“I don’t see the usefulness in doing another map,” he said. “What’s the utility of having an additional map when we already have three that are legal?”

The maps the demographer created are balanced since each area has within 10 percent of 4,744 people in each district. Residents however, wanted at least one to reflect the eight that were submitted by different Selma citizens.

“It’s not a futility if that’s what the community is asking for,” Salas said. “You had eight people turn in maps that were nothing close to what [the demographer] drew. You didn’t make one single map that was even slightly close to what the public submitted. Not one. And there were eight maps that this community submitted.”

Speaking over her, Robertson denied that.

“I don’t hear the community asking.”

He then asked which of the eight maps should be reworked by the demographers and insisted they either all be redrawn, or he wouldn’t accept any of them.

“Unless we can do all of them, I don’t know how we can do any of them.”

Councilman John Trujillo suggested at least two publicly submitted maps be used so the citizens would feel heard.

“When you’re talking about one map, two maps, or three maps, whatever the case is, this is public funds we’re paying the demographer to do.” He added, “Let’s give them the opportunity to do [the maps labeled] P101, P105 and the three that she submitted. Then send it out [and] let the public see it. Then at the public hearing, we go at it and then we’re done. I just want true representation. That’s all I’m asking.”

Tilton said there would be no additional cost if the public simply resubmitted new maps and used the interactive tool on the City’s website to draw new maps. They had to meet the Sept. 6 deadline, though.

“We have posted a summary on the website that shows each of their maps and each of their districts. So if a person were to take their map and see one district needs to be shaved by 200 people, then they would say, ok, take these people out and add it [to another district],” Tilton said.

Robertson again attempted to put conditions on accepting new maps.

“I’m not going to consider it unless there are eight maps,” he said.

But City Attorney Rojas advised him against making such statements.

“Mr. Mayor, I would caution you against pre-deciding your vote in a public hearing matter.”

Robertson then amended his comment.

“I’d be disinclined to look favorably on anything but, from the public, other than eight additional maps. And I hope everybody who submitted this map, if they want to do it population-correct, would take a look at it and use that tool, because why should one [map] be advantaged over the seven?”

Robertson said for any maps to be considered, the population in each district must be balanced.

“We’re not going to direct the demographer to do eight additional maps.”

Attorney Rojas affirmed that “anyone can turn in any map by Sept. 6.”

Tilton said ideally the second public hearing on Sept. 16 is when one final map would be chosen.

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The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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