Supervisors Plotting Their Futures with Well-Connected Help

A recent meeting of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

A recent meeting of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011 | The five members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday take their first steps toward deciding their political futures, hiring lawyers to guide them through the once-a-decade process of drawing their own district boundaries.

This exercise is “probably the most political action they will take,” said former Supervisor and one-time state legislator Marian Bergeson. “It’s hard to get away from self-interest.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Campbell, who will leave office in 2012 because of term limits and has no plans “at this point in time” to seek another elective office, said a board committee comprised of aides to each of the five supervisors is studying how to best redraw the lines.

But this most political of all political processes is beginning with the hiring of a law firm.

Four firms submitted proposals to the county and the one rated best and recommended by the county counsel’s staff is Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, LLP which is based in San Rafael, north of San Francisco and has offices in Sacramento. The firm also is doing San Diego County’s redistricting.

Partner Vigo (Chip) Nielsen is a former top aide to onetime Republican Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke and another partner, Steven Merksamer was chief of staff to former GOP Gov. George Deukmejian.

Ranked second was the local, politically well-connected firm of Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart. Ken Smart is the lawyer for the Orange County Transportation Authority and Thomas L. Woodruff is a former Newport Beach assistant city attorney, Fountain Valley city attorney and wastewater and water law lawyer for county agencies like the Sanitation District.

Trailing the top two on the staff list of recommendations is the Los Angeles firm of Reed & Davidson. One of its partners is Dana Reed, a member of the governing board of the California Republican Party, a member of the Orange County GOP’s Lincoln Club and, as he says on his website biography, someone who “has been involved in California state politics and government all of his adult life …” including as a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

In last place was a firm that has represented Democrats, Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, which also has offices in the Bay-area and Sacramento and whose past clients have included the United Farm Workers, a number of state agencies and former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, San Francisco Mayor and former Assembly Speaker Democrat Willie L. Brown, Jr., and other leaders in the California Legislature and California Democratic Party.

Each of the firms bills hourly with Nielsen, Merksamer charging the highest rate, $520 for the work of partners and $395 for associates.

“While their rates are higher than other firms,” said the staff report, “their associates are highly qualified in redistricting and demographic information and would be performing most of the work for the County at their lower rate.”

In the past, the county counsel’s office has done the redistricting legal work. But its staff report said “because of the continuing development of the area of law and complexity of possible legal issues, we are requesting to bring on outside counsel to support this process.”

The Politics

Every 10 years, following the census, boundaries for elected offices, including Supervisors, are redrawn. (To see what current Supervisorial, Assembly, Senate and Congressional lines look like, view this map)

Supervisorial boundaries set this year for the 2012 elections can set up an office holder to run in a compatible Assembly, Senate or Congressional district or exclude the home of a worrisome potential opponent eyeing the same elective office. At the same time, term limits may send legislators back to the county to run for office.

Ballot initiatives over the past few years have changed the way boundaries for the state Legislature and U.S. Congress are drawn. Until this year, political leaders were able to draw boundaries that favored members of their party and incumbents. The process is called gerrymandering and resulted in politically contorted district boundaries for both parties.

Now, those Congressional and Legislative lines will be determined by a citizens’ committee that, in theory, will make the districts more cohesive and less partisan. City and county boundaries are supposed to be kept in tact as much as possible and communities of interest held together.

Bergeson, a Newport Beach Republican, remembers her state Senate district in the early 1990s stretching from the Los Angeles County line to the Mexican border, a district drawn precinct by precinct to capture registered Republicans. Democratic districts, then and now, were drawn the same way. The goal was to protect incumbents.

Former Orange County Supervisor and Republican state Assemblyman Bruce Nestande said one of his first acts in 1974 when he reached Sacramento was to introduce a bill that required districts to keep the boundaries of cities and counties whole, among others things. The bill died.

County Boundaries

While the method of drawing state and federal boundaries has now changed, county supervisors still get to draw their own lines.

Although the five supervisorial seats are officially non-partisan, all of the incumbents are Republicans and some, if not all, may have their eyes on the future. Orange County’s 1.6 million voters are 43 percent Republican, 32 percent Democratic and 21 percent no affiliation.

With a population of about three million, each supervisorial district will have roughly 600,000 residents.

Nestande said he’d like to see the Board of Supervisors publicly set out a series of goals for redesigning their seats, including maintaining the integrity of city boundaries as well as community groups, like Latinos and Asians.

City leaders shouldn’t have to go to two or even more Supervisors to express their needs, he said. Right now, for example, Anaheim and Newport Beach each are divided into two Supervisorial districts.

And if you split up groups like Latinos, Nestande said, “they’re not going to have an opportunity to be on the board.”

“When you get right down to it,” he said, “it seems to me the board ought to establish these goals … You don’t need attorneys for that. It’s not very complicated.”

Campbell said “I hope we’ll have whole cities,” when the board finishes drawing lines. And, he added, “thanks to the computer, it’s (redistricting) not a technical task, it’s a political task.”

But don’t forget, said Bergeson, “the most important thing to politicians is their future.”

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