Politics

‘Thumb on the Scale’ — Groups Criticize Local Leaders on Political Map Update

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Fresno leaders have begun the process of drawing new district boundaries for local political offices. (Shutterstock)
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A diverse coalition of community groups says Fresno government leaders are looking out for themselves — rather than voters — as they move forward on drawing new district boundaries for elected offices.

They are questioning the decision by both governments to hire a Los Angeles demographics firm to assist with the local redistricting process.

“Unfortunately, we fear those in power, at both levels of government, are seeking to put their thumb on the scale and may use the redistricting process to preserve their own power,” said Kaya Herron with the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, a member of the coalition. “We believe voters should choose their politicians — politicians should not choose their voters.”

The Fresno Redistricting Coalition represents six organizations. The group says the consulting firm, National Demographic Corporation, has a checkered history when it comes to drawing maps for city council and supervisorial districts, as well as a reputation for drawing lines to keep incumbents in power.

‘Putting Them on Notice’

NDC is one of the country’s most prolific demographic consultants, citing hundreds of clients, including several local counties, cities and school districts.

“We’re putting them on notice and we’re putting the elected officials on both sides, on the county and the city, on notice that we’re aware that you have selected a group that is prioritizing yourself,” coalition spokesman Dillon Savory said.

NDC did not respond to GV Wire’s request for comment. However, they addressed critics in their proposal to the city of Fresno.

“The firm is sometimes criticized, usually by people from outside of the client jurisdiction, for not acting as an advocate or proselytizer for what these outsiders think is ‘right’ for the client,” wrote company president Douglas Johnson. “But NDC team members are expert advisors, not proselytizers. NDC guides our clients through the process to a map that meets all legal requirements and the goals of our client – not the goals of outside critics.”

During an April 13 Fresno County Board of Supervisors meetings, Johnson said they have never had a proposed redistricting map overturned by a judge.

Fresno City, County Have Final Say on Changes

Ultimately, the full bodies of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and Fresno City Council will approve final district maps for their jurisdiction.

That should not be the case, Savory said.

“It should be mandated that every jurisdiction that has elected officials go through an independent process where the elected official has nothing to do with the outcome that makes plain sense to every single voter,” Savory said.

California Common Cause lists a handful of local jurisdictions that use an independent commission to draw the lines, including San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego.

Councilmembers, Supervisors Defends Selection

The Fresno City Council approved the contract with NDC by a 7-0 vote on the consent agenda at their June 24 council meeting. It came on a recommendation from the three-member redistricting subcommittee of councilmembers Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza and Tyler Maxwell.

In a joint statement, the committee members said NDC was chosen by a public bidding process.

“NDC’s professional experience in developing maps based on federal and state law is second to none. Our City Council has also funded and published a Request for Proposals for a separate firm to conduct additional community outreach independently of NDC,” the councilmembers said. “We are confident that our outreach efforts will produce a record level of community engagement and invite city residents to participate in person, online, or virtually at the numerous upcoming community meetings.”

Maxwell estimates the contract will be up to $200,000 depending on how many extras the city utilizes such as mapping and outreach services.

Fresno County administrators approved its $93,500 contract with NDC without a vote from supervisors. The value of the contract was below the $100,000 needed for a vote.

“The County of Fresno has confidence in the non-partisan work and track record of NDC,” a county spokesperson said in an email. “Their team covers the entire political spectrum from a former Democratic County Central Committee member to a retired Republican state legislative staffer as well as ‘no party preference’ team members, and a Libertarian.”

Public Input

No member of the coalition group spoke at the June 24 Fresno City Council meeting.

Savory explained that his group met several times with the redistricting subcommittee and get assurances of public meetings at convenient times, multiple locations and translation services.

But, when it came time to talk about the demographer, the meetings stopped.

“We thought we had impacted the process of the demographer. While we were surprised by the fact that they were going forward with this, it was more about response and not about us showing up to the council meeting and chastising them… We couldn’t have gotten nearly this much information in a three minute segment at City Hall or on Zoom,” Savory said.

Rubber Stamping Maps?

Savory is skeptical of how fair the lines NDC will present to the city and county respectively.

“(NDC) will take their lines to the elected officials to get rubber stamped, knowing that it’s very challenging for community groups… it’s not like they can generate a bunch of money to sue the city or NDC for that matter,” Savory said.

Fresno County appointed an 11-member advisory committee. They held one official meeting, and one workshop in Riverdale, attended by approximately 20 people. Four meetings are scheduled in August alone.

The Fresno City Council discussed redistricting three times this year. A July 15 meeting was the first time the public could attend chambers in-person. Only two did.

Several more meetings and workshops are scheduled between now and when maps must be approved by Dec. 15.

About the Coalition

The coalition consists of Communities for a New California, Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, Jakara Movement, Hmong Innovating Politics, CAIR and Central Valley Partnership.

“We wanted to make a diverse coalition as well that encompasses many of the communities that are marginalized and redistricting with the census, with other civic engagement aspects of everything that we do and try to affect change in our communities,” Savory said.

Savor said the coalition is an extension of the group’s census outreach.

“We’re all together to make sure that everything we did with the census translates accurately to our elected representatives,” Savory said.

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