Lake Forest City Council members seemingly narrowed their choice of district election maps from five to two, but, in a meeting that confused even council members, directed their map maker to draw at least six maps of the two basic plans.
“You’re moving in the wrong direction!” shouted someone from the back of the audience when the council was finalizing its Nov. 7 decision.
“The first is not to blow a gut here — we’re only doing this for one election. Whatever we’re doing tonight, we’re not locked in forever,” said Councilman Jim Gardner. “I think the one thing we can do here, rather than identify any particular district, is to identify a process — a process that we’ll need to use again and again and again.”
After arguments about maps and a motion that confused the city clerk, the map maker and council members themselves, the council voted 3-2 to bring maps 116 and 128 — each with at least three versions — to the Nov. 21 meeting when it will narrow its selection. Mayor Pro Tem Leah Basile and Gardner voted in opposition.
The council is expected to adopt an ordinance Dec. 5 to switch to district elections and select the accompanying map.
Council arguments mostly centered around population differences between districts within each map and keeping certain neighborhoods and communities together. Some maps that keep neighborhoods together, create districts with widely differing populations. Other plans that try to evenly distribute the population among the five council districts, carve up neighborhoods.
“Is it (the goal) trying to get the (population) deviation down as close to nothing as possible? Or is it compactness and how does that affect communities of interest?” Councilman Dwight Robinson asked. “There’s no overarching number that this one needs to be perfect. Because by making it perfect, another imperfection pops up.”
The switch to district elections comes after attorney Kevin Shenkman, of the Malibu-based firm Shenkman & Hughes, sent a letter in April that warned the city’s at-large system disenfranchises Hispanic voters and isn’t in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act.
According to 2017 demographics data on the city’s website, the Lake Forest population is nearly 84,000. The city is 66 percent white, 28 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian and 2 percent black.
Map 128 is the result of Councilman Andrew Hamilton’s Oct. 3 idea, when he suggested dividing the city and not keeping communities together would force each council member to represent a larger swath of the population and not just certain groups of neighborhoods. Hamilton’s map carves up the city starting near the 5 freeway, with one district stretching along the freeway and the other four stretching perpendicularly from there.
“I feel like we should unify the city and not divide the city,” Hamilton said.
The other option, Map 116, attempts to create districts that keep together communities and neighborhoods.
Robinson, who didn’t explicitly state which map he likes, said he understood the idea behind Hamilton’s map.
“There’s no unity in the districts, meaning it forces unity in the city,” Robinson said.
However, Gardner said he did a survey — both online and in-person — and found that a majority of residents support keeping together communities.
“There was an overwhelming desire by the people to keep their communities together,” Gardner said, adding while Map 116 keeps communities together, it has the worst population deviations of the five maps the council initially considered.
Basile also said communities need to be kept together.
“Whether or not we agree or disagree that there are communities of interest, I think the people kind of spoke and said there were,” Basile said.
Basile and Gardner voiced support for different maps, but failed to gain traction from the rest of the council.
The city’s contracted demographer, Justin Levitt, wanted clarity from the council on what he was supposed to do with the two maps and their variations.
“In order to do multiple versions, we need to hear from council on what’s not working. That’s what we would really need at this point,” Levitt said. “If we’re just doing maps just to make maps, it’s not adding much to the conversation.”
Mayor Scott Voigts told Levitt to adjust the “finger” running up the southeast side of the city on map 128 and that could help balance population deviations. He also directed Levitt to separate the Sun and Sail Club area from the tennis club.
Robinson said, as much as possible, the demographer needs to balance the goal of keeping communities together with minimizing population differences.
Gardner emphasized the need for a standard process for selecting a district election map and tried to urge the council not to focus too much on each map because after the 2020 census, the city is going to have to redraw its map.
Since 2015, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Fullerton and Buena Park have moved to district elections after critics said districts were needed so large groups of minorities, including Hispanics, had a chance to win council seats.
Santa Ana narrowly rejected the move to district elections on a split vote in January and now is facing a threat to abandon their at large voting system or face legal action.
Mission Viejo kicks off its first round of public hearings on district elections Tuesday, after Shenkman sent a letter — similar to the one sent to Lake Forest — to the city in September.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.