COMMENTARY: Redistricting Long Beach’s Council Districts Is Not Needed

2:05pm | Editor’s note: The following commentary was submitted by Dennis C. Smith, who has been active in the Long Beach community for more than 20 years and is a past president of the Long Beach Education Foundation.

In March the City Council of Long Beach voted to redraw district boundaries to smooth out population differences between council districts. The vote was primarily based on the advice from City Attorney Robert Shannon who said that in order to comply with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution district lines needed to be redrawn so that no council district was more than 5 percent above the “ideal” population—which would be equal population. 

Because of population shifts recorded in the 2010 census it was determined that the Ninth District needed to lose roughly 1,000 residents as it was 7 percent above the “ideal.” The total population of Long Beach only grew by 735 individuals from 2000 to 2010. Population shift was a bit greater, however, as the economy leading up to the 2010 Census caused families to move in with relatives and friends and into cheaper housing. As a result, without any basis in codified law in the city, county, state or United States, Shannon told the City Council that 5 percent population variance is the law, and if the city wants to avoid being sued it must redistrict.

Last month three proposals that had been available to the public to consider were presented to the Council for recommendation. All three were rejected and instead a fourth proposal was presented from the Council and accepted by a 5-4 vote. In this proposal more than 3,000 residents from Bixby Knolls in the Eighth District and half of the vibrant and revitalized Atlantic Corridor north of Bixby Road would be torn from the Eighth District and put into the Seventh District currently represented by James Johnson. It’s no surprise Johnson was behind the proposal and has been pushing to get it approved.

As a resident of the Bixby Knolls neighborhood that will be forced to join the Seventh District by government fiat, I am strongly opposed to the redistricting proposal, and I feel most Long Beach residents should be as well. It not only rips apart Bixby Knolls, the proposal  hurts the Westside and Wrigley areas in the Seventh District politically and segregates one of the only areas of the city that has seen economic growth and vitality during the recent recession.

The Phantom 5 Percent

When presenting his opinion to City Council and recommending district boundaries be redrawn, Shannon stated that population totals of all districts must be within 5 percent of the “ideal.”  The “ideal” is essentially the total city population divided by nine to reach a total of about 51,300 residents per district. The problem with this is nowhere is there any law that states the tolerance between political districts be 5 percent. What is written is that communities should not be separated and natural boundaries should be followed whenever and wherever possible. Shannon has scared the City Council into believing the city will be subject to expensive lawsuits if the districts are not redrawn to lower the population of the Ninth District. No one on the Council challenged Shannon’s number of 5 percent and just accepted his opinion as fact. As a result, the City Council is engaging in a process that will cost a strapped city money to redraw boundaries.

Westside and Wrigley
There is no question that the Seventh District as currently configured is the most distorted and disjointed district in the city of Long Beach. Numerous redistricting actions by past Councils playing politics has the Seventh stretching from along the northwestern edge of the airport  across the Long Beach Freeway to the very western edge of the City, dipping into Signal Hill’s boundaries, from San Antonio and Cherry on the furthest tip North to PCH and the Terminal Island Freeway on the Southern-most tip.  The majority of the district geographically and in population is the west of Long Beach Boulevard and below Wardlow Road. 

With the addition of 3,000 more residents from Bixby Knolls to the Seventh District the influence of residents and voters on the Westside and in Wrigley neighborhoods will be diluted. The residents proposed to be taken from the Eighth and added to the Seventh are high-propensity voters, somewhat active politically and are donors to local, state and national campaigns. If you were seeking funds for your campaign and votes to win, would you concentrate your messages on the Westside or residents in Bixby Knolls and California Heights? Historically the Westside and Wrigley have been lacking representation on City Council as their representatives have come from across Long Beach Boulevard. Adding high propensity voters and donors from Bixby Knolls will only decrease the influence and voice of Wrigley and Westside voters who should strongly oppose the redistricting proposal.

Atlantic Corridor
It started in earnest with Trader Joe’s. The neighborhoods surrounding the Atlantic Avenue and Carson Street intersection flooded Trader Joe’s with letters, emails and phone calls requesting a store in Bixby Knolls. It was an instant success, not just for Trader Joe’s, but for Bixby Knolls’ other businesses. Under the leadership of Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association Executive Director Blair Cohn the community action was continued and the neighborhoods and businesses began a very strong relationship of support.  

With events like First Fridays, Community Happy Hour, Bixby Knolls Strollers, Supper Club and Literary Society, businesses and residents started to interact and create a true community that was lacking. Currently divided between the Seventh District below Bixby Road and the Eighth District above Bixby Road, the business revitalization above Bixby Road has been much more successful in attracting new shops, restaurants and patrons due to the relationship between Cohn, the BKBIA, the local residents, Eighth District Councilwoman Rae Gabelich and her staff. The proposed redistricting will stunt these relationships and divide the Atlantic Corridor so that the east side of the street is taken from the Eighth District and placed in Johnson’s Seventh.  

Redisticting for “One Person, One Vote”
In comments to me and in the media, Johnson has said that the 14th Amendment requires one person, one vote. But our nation does not have one person, one vote; we have one lawfully registered voter, one vote. Children under the age of 18 are not eligible to vote. Taking the census numbers of registered voters and adult populations, if the City Council wanted to engage in some honest redistricting that would flatten out the eligible voting populations for supposed fairness in representation then neither the redistricting that should occur should be among the First, Second, Third and Sixth Districts.

I submit the “ideal” for redistricting, if we must have it, to honor “one person, one vote” should be equating the population for those eligible to vote — adults. The city of Long Beach has 462,257 residents, and of these 347,114 are adults over the age of 18, meeting the minimum criteria to vote for City Council representation. Dividing the adult population by nine council districts means that one person, one vote per eligible adult should mean that each district has about 38,500 adults. Using Shannon’s phantom 5 percent tolerance from the “ideal,” this means that districts should all have between 36,575 to 40,425 adults. As you can see this is the case for the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Districts.

Here are the numbers based upon census and registered voter numbers from the city of Long Beach website.

As you can see, the adult population levels are very consistent between the Eighth and Seventh Districts. At least, it does until Councilman Johnson’s proposal takes more than 2,000 adults from the Eighth and puts them in his district. 

If the Long Beach City Council adheres to its desire to redistrict to the recommendation of Shannon based on total population and his phantom 5 percent number, then it should have the political courage to redistrict the entire city.  Consider if the city needs nine council districts, look at the separation of the Port in the 2nd from industrial/manufacturing sector in the 1st, take the airport out of the 5th which has minimal impact from the noise and pollution compared to the 4th, 7th and 8th, fix the 7th and its absurd boundaries created from too many similar processes to the one our current council is engaged in.  

The current redistricting proposal is the result of a Council not requesting and requiring more information from our City Attorney.  It is the result of an increase of less than two-tenths of one percent population growth and a variance from Shannon’s “ideal” number of less than one thousand residents.  Because of this more than 3,000 residents and a vibrant business district will be torn from their historical political boundaries, separated from the community they have been actively engaged in and given to another council district.  So poor is this redistricting plan that it barely passed with a 5-4 vote. A good plan that affects so many residents should at least have the support of those residents, and win by more than a one-vote majority.  

Emotions are running high over this issue in the 8th District where some residents have created the  “Recall James Johnson” website. Both council members for the Seventh and Eighth are having community meetings to discuss the issue and get community input and support for their positions, with Gabelich opposed to the redistricting proposal that will carve out a strong neighborhood from the Eighth and Johnson in favor of adding this neighborhood to his district.

As for my neighbors and I, should this proposal pass we can go from 2004 to 2018 without voting for a council representative. In 2004 Gabelich won election and in 2008 there was no election as no one entered the race. In 2012 when the Eighth District’s open seat is up for election, we will have been displaced to the Seventh. In 2014 when Johnson faces re-election, there will be no election if he is not opposed, meaning the next election would be 2018. One person, one vote unless your census tract is redistricted in local gerrymandering that prohibits your ability to vote.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints
 expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this  website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Long Beach Post or the official policies of the Long Beach Post.

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