Thursday, June 30, 2011 | Nobody’s mentioned it publicly, but one criteria for redrawing Orange County Board of Supervisors district boundaries allows the board to protect incumbents Janet Nguyen and Shawn Nelson.

The relevant phrase, partway down the list of goals for redistricting the county, is “continuity of representation.”

Nelson and Nguyen are the only supervisors eligible to seek re-election in the coming years. Between 2012 and 2014, Supervisors Bill Campbell, John Moorlach and Pat Bates will be forced out by term limits.

“Marvelous!” said Bob Stern, who heads the Santa Monica-based Center For Governmental Studies. “I’ve got to write that down: ‘continuity of representation.’ “

There’s nothing illegal about it. Politicians have drawn district maps to protect themselves since 1812 when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew distorted boundaries to protect his party, named the Democratic-Republican Party. Gerry’s design of one district was so distorted it reminded opponents of a salamander, giving American politics the term gerrymander.

Some supervisors and aides who are drafting Orange County’s new districts said they were unaware that protecting incumbents was an option.

“I don’t think we’ve discussed protecting incumbents,” said Matt Harper, Nguyen’s chief of staff.

Supervisor John Moorlach said it was important to retain continuity in district boundaries to maintain consistent representation of cities. But he said he wasn’t aware that “continuity of representation” applied to the office holder, not the district’s cities.

Doing It the Old-Fashioned Way

The new lines for supervisorial districts, which are being redrawn as the result of the 2010 U.S. census, must generally follow the same rules as the new legislative and congressional boundaries being drafted by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

That means they must be as equal as possible in population and must comply with federal voting rights laws that prohibit disenfranchising minority groups.

The state citizens’ committee, created by voters in November, isn’t allowed to consider political party registration or the well-being of incumbents.

Historically, that’s not been the case. Current legislative and congressional lines, drawn after the 2000 census, were made after Republican and Democratic officeholders agreed to protect themselves.

“That traditionally is the most important criteria [to elected officials],” said Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and coauthor of other California political reform measures.

“The sole purpose of 2001 [redistricting] was to protect incumbents,” he added, “and they succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.”

Stern said that in all elections during the following decade, only one incumbent lost a re-election bid.

Although the county committee must follow population and voting rights laws, it doesn’t have the strict restrictions on incumbent protection that the state committee has.

The county committee comprises aides to the five supervisors. The Board of Supervisors itself will approve the final maps.

The county committee is working to keep together communities of interest, which include minority groups with common racial, ethnic or language interests.

It also will try to hold together communities of similar economic backgrounds, coastal communities and avoid splitting cities into different districts.

Other criteria include keeping together communities that use common public infrastructure, such as water districts and transportation systems.

The provision that permits supervisors to protect incumbents says the overall criteria includes “maintaining the core integrity of current districts for continuity of representation.”

Redistricting principles distributed by the National Conference of State Legislatures states it bluntly. “Protection of incumbents,” it advises, has been a court-approved part of redistricting since 1993.

What’s Next

The supervisorial committee has held several public hearings around the county. The last of those hearings is at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Administration in Santa Ana, unless members decide another session is needed. Only 10 to 12 members of the public have attended most of the prior hearings.

At today’s hearing, each committee member will list the two or three plans they consider best. In the next few weeks, they will draw a preliminary set of maps and present them to the Board of Supervisors, which will make the final decisions.

Nelson doesn’t have to seek re-election until 2014 and is running for Congress next year. If he loses that race, he remains a supervisor. Nguyen’s term is up next year and she must run for re-election to stay in office.

Even though Campbell, Moorlach and Bates themselves won’t be affected by the new lines, they may still work to create district boundaries that would help favored aides or others they support should these people run for open seats.

Another issue facing the supervisor committee is what to do if proposed new lines push two supervisors into the same district. One of the draft plans submitted by the public would create such a situation.

Harper said it’s unfair to voters to approve such a plan because supervisors run for four-year terms and two supervisors would be in the same district for two years, while another district wouldn’t have a supervisor.

But the same thing happens to state Senate districts after each 10-year redistricting. New district lines frequently leave a Senate district without an incumbent until the next election. In those cases, the Senate Rules Committee assigns other Senators temporary responsibility for residents of the empty district.

Stern said the Board of Supervisors could make similar assignments if redrawing boundaries served the residents better than keeping them the way they are. Other counties have handled the problem, he said.

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