Standing Room Only or Standing There Lonely

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Redistricting is a big deal, even at the county level. It plays a pivotal role in who ends up serving on the Board of Supervisors. It also helps determine, among other things, how state and federal dollars flow into communities.

Yet the most recent public meeting to discuss new boundary lines for Orange County’s five supervisorial districts drew just 20 people, including a news reporter. And that was its largest crowd to date.

It’s not for lack of advertising. The county has sent out more than 225 notices of the public meetings to community groups and news organizations. Each supervisor and some community groups have proposed new district maps.

San Diego County seems to be having similar attendance problems for its supervisorial redistricting.

Meanwhile, meetings of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, the newly formed body for redrawing boundaries for the Assembly, state Senate and congressional seats in California, are packing them in up and down the state.

It was standing room only Saturday afternoon at Cal State Fullerton. More than 230 people filled an auditorium to discuss the state plan to realign legislative and congressional lines.

So why the difference?

For one thing, there are a lot more interested parties — and elective offices at stake — when a state’s political boundaries are redrawn.

But just as importantly, say good-government experts, the people who are showing up to the Citizens Redistricting Commission believe that their voices might actually be heard. That’s not necessarily the feeling at the county level.

Redistricting has long been the ultimate exercise in backroom political deal-making, controlled by legislators and done mostly to protect the re-election prospects of incumbents.

But last November, California voters, tired of all the closed-door maneuvering and gerrymandered districts, took redistricting away from the Legislature and gave it to a 14-member independent citizens commission. That’s the group that drew the crowd at Cal State Fullerton.

But at the county, the boundary drawing is still the province of insiders.

The attendance figures can be easily explained by “who’s drawing the lines,” said Carolyn Cavecche, mayor of Orange.

“You have county staff drawing the lines and the supervisors making the decisions,” Cavecche noted.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and one of those who helped draft other California political reform laws, is even more blunt.

“They [the public] know it doesn’t matter. The hearing doesn’t matter at all.”

After legal requirements, such as generally equal population distribution among districts, “the first criteria will be to protect the supervisors,” Stern said.

“It’s just night and day” between the approach of the citizens commission and of elected officials voting on their own district boundaries. “Day is transparency and night is darkness.”

The next county meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. today, June 23rd, at Mission Viejo City Hall.



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