With an independent commission in charge, the 2021 redistricting process was supposed to be free of political bias. But that did not entirely happen, as consultants, lobbyists and councilmembers sought to influence the months-long deliberations that defined political boundaries for the next decade.
The city commission, empowered by a 2018 ballot measure, is now proposing fixes for the future, including requiring those with influence, including politicians, to clearly identify themselves if they seek to give input through public comment or written correspondence.
“It was very difficult during the public hearing to decipher how to weigh public comment,” Commission Chair Alejandra Gutierrez said. “It would really help for future commissions to have that information when they’re doing this work.”
The commission issued a memo outlining a number of suggestions, and during a meeting Thursday, asked that they be provided a list of lobbyists who work in the city.
Commissioners acknowledged that it was hard to determine which comments were from the general public and which were from people with politics interests.
Some examples include:
Councilwoman Cindy Allen, who was ultimately drawn out of her district by the commission, gave public testimony as “Cindy” while trying to lobby for the Downtown waterfront that includes her condo to remain the District 2, which she now represents. Her council staff members also gave public comments to the same effect without identifying themselves as members of her office.
Tonia Reyes Uranga, the wife of incumbent Councilman Roberto Uranga, was a fixture at meetings and advocated hard against proposed district boundaries that would have displaced her husband from the district he’s running for reelection for in 2022.
Councilwoman Suzie Price, who was drawn out of every initial map released by the commission, successfully rallied support among her constituents, who showed up in droves to commission meetings and preserved much of the district that Price represents, including the area that includes her home.
Political consultants also called out specific maps they had submitted, which avoided displacing any council incumbents.
The commission is sending a 10-page memo to the City Council to consider proposed changes in the future, which also asks that future commissions have more autonomy from the city itself, that they have more decision-making power over the commission’s budget, and that they have a say in who is hired to help with the mapping process.
“Commissioners feel that this should also extend to the ability of the Commission to have their own legal counsel and potentially their own staff that are not working within the City government,” a draft of the memo said.
The commission faced a small controversy early in the 2021 process when a city-hired law firm suggested the commission start from existing lines rather than start from scratch, leading to a public rebuke because the old lines had created some inequities across the city.
Other recommendations discussed Thursday included logistical issues in how the commission itself was selected. Commissioner Josias Gonzalez, an alternate on the commission, suggested that the city use a neighboring city’s ethics commission to vet potential candidates.
Commissioner Feliza Ortiz-Licon asked if the commission could have more time in the future to decide on who is voted chair and co-chair of the body so it could better determine who has the leadership qualities necessary to run the next commission’s meetings.
Ortiz-Licon also recommended that once selected, commissioners should take tours of individual districts to become more familiar with them.
Commissioner Thomas Cooper asked if the commission could recommend the creation of more City Council districts to allow future commissions more flexibility in drawing boundaries.
“It seems that it would be easier with some of these weird shapes if you could split them up some more,” Cooper said.
Creating more council districts would require a charter amendment to be approved by voters of Long Beach.
Gutierrez and others asked that a more accurate depiction of the workload be described in the application for future commissioners. Commissioners met 30 times since late 2020 with many of the line-drawing meetings ending well after midnight.
“It is an equity issue that we don’t have this opportunity for those who might not have employment that allows them to be able to do this,” Gutierrez said, noting that she worked from home when the commission was closing out weekly meetings at nearly 2 a.m.
Other commissioners asked if the outreach and education efforts could start in the years leading up to the 2031 redistricting process and beyond.
While the city did use a number of avenues to advertise the process, including social media and physical billboards placed throughout the city, attendance at some community meetings was minuscule.
The memo said that despite the commission being presented with “an environment that we hope no future commission will face” the use of both virtual and in-person options to participate could serve as a model for future commissions to allow for residents who can’t physically attend to still take part in the process.
The commission’s recommendations will be forwarded to the City Council for consideration and potential adoption. The city charter requires a two-thirds vote by the council to approve an ordinance that amends the commission’s time limits and deadlines.
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