The Pleasanton City Council held the first of several legally mandated public hearings on Tuesday before city officials will draw up new council districts and switch from at-large to district elections.
In September, the council agreed to transition to district elections, which will ultimately divide the city into districts, with each area being represented by a council member who lives inside those boundaries. The mayor will continue to remain at-large and be elected by all voters in Pleasanton.
At least two public meetings must be held within 30 days of each other before drawing any district map, according to state law. A staff report estimates $50,000 will be spent for outside legal counsel and a demographer to help draft district boundaries. Using council feedback and public input, one or more maps will be drafted and eventually brought back for final approval.
Each district must have approximately the same population, cannot have race be the primary factor, and should also be geographically contiguous "to the extent practicable" and "respect the geographic integrity of any local neighborhood or local community of interest."
The council also cannot adopt district boundaries "for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against a political party."
Mayor Karla Brown said at the Jan. 4 council meeting, "We received numerous emails from residents saying they did not like the idea of districting and they did not want us to pursue districting," but the city doesn't have much chance of fighting the matter in court. Brown said the city of Santa Monica has already spent $22 million without any success, and that "we're not going to be frivolous with taxpayer dollars in an unlikely litigation."
During the public hearing on Tuesday, one resident asked what would happen if nobody ran for election in one of the districts and was told it would be handled by the council through their appointment process.
Another speaker asked how the city came up with criteria to divide Pleasanton into four districts. Demographer Michael Wagaman said the number of proposed districts are based on the size of the current city council, but there is also the matter of "how those criteria are applied and what are those decisions, what are those communities of interest."
"That's what this process is, is really identifying how those criteria that are coming down from the state really apply within the unique demographics of and unique situation of your city," Wagaman said.
Brown asked whether preferences for sitting council members are allowed, and was told that state law uses and applies an order of priority, but does not prohibit incumbents from being considered.
"It is frustrating as an elected official to say I'm only really going to focus on one neighborhood when I'm running for office knowing those are the only people who can vote and elect me," Brown said.
When discussing how to identify communities of interest, Vice Mayor Valerie Arkin wondered if elementary school boundaries are "something that has been taken into consideration heavily." Wagaman confirmed that "common assets like schools are absolutely one of the ways to define communities of interest," though he added "that's not a uniform rule because some schools have open enrollment … but that would be an example of the kind of direction this body could give."
Arkin said, "As it's mentioned in the presentation about race, it must not be the predominant factor … it can be a subordinate type of factor. I know this is an odd question but what does that look like? What does it mean if it's a subordinate factor?"
Wagaman explained, "there are lots of ways that race and ethnicity may correspond to other things that we're looking at."
"For example, you may have a portion of the town … that has different socioeconomic issues," Wagaman said. "And those different socioeconomic issues may be correlated to the fact that that area has heavily large immigrant populations and, therefore, they have different language access issues, therefore, they have different issues of education, and all those issues are all correlated to issues of race and ethnicity."
Arkin and Councilmember Kathy Narum both brought up the city's Housing Element update that is currently underway and asked whether future population changes and existing elementary school boundaries can be taken into account when drawing the map.
Wagaman said they need to rely on data from the 2020 US Census and existing city boundaries but "could identify areas expected to grow." Any areas potentially annexed in the future would also require an adjustment to the district boundaries.
"If there's an area in the city that you know is going to grow faster, for example, than another part, it is acceptable to say okay we'll leave that district a little smaller, knowing it's going to get bigger over the next 10 years," Wagaman said. "You still have to be within those acceptable deviations but it is something you can look at."
Councilmember Julie Testa noted, "When we break into four districts, we have a smaller portion of the city we're representing but we also have conflicts of interest", as well as questions about whether a council member's home could create a conflict of interest within that smaller district when voting on items like the Housing Element.
"If I have to recuse … where does that leave my constituents when I, their representative, is now conflicted out?" Testa said.
Tom Willis, another demographer also hired by the city, said the conflict of interest rules don't change, adding "that can be a tough situation, and I don't think there's a particularly good answer for that."
"The answer is a district can pretty much be left without a representative," Testa said.
Two more public hearings are scheduled on Jan. 18 and Feb. 3. The council is expected to vote on the final map at their Feb. 24 regular meeting. The transition from at-large to district-based elections will be completed in time for the November general election.