As OC’s top officials get ready to redraw district maps that affect political power and representation of local communities for the next decade, there are mounting questions about whether local residents will be brought into the process in a meaningful way.
And the state commission in charge of redrawing legislative and Congressional seats already is conducting dozens of Zoom outreach meetings.
Orange County officials have done none of that.
So far, the county has not done any public outreach to bring the public into the conversation on redrawing the five supervisors’ districts.
Redistricting can have huge implications for democratic representation.
“In a democracy, voters are supposed to choose the representatives. The representatives are not supposed to choose the voters,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University.
“[When] you have the public officials drawing the districts, they get the ability to ensure their own re-election. And that’s why we have to have a system for choosing public officials that is above reproach.”
“Now more than ever we should be doing the type of [public] engagement that isn’t being done,” he added.
Voice of OC called and texted all five county supervisors and the county’s chief executive to ask when and how the public will be brought into the redistricting process. Most of the supervisors didn’t respond.
County CEO Frank Kim didn’t have specifics about when the public would be invited into the process, but did say supervisors will probably have a discussion about the redistricting plan next month at one of their regular meetings.
“The public will have sufficient time to engage and be a part of that process,” Kim told Voice of OC.
The only supervisor who responded to questions about redistricting was Katrina Foley, who took office a few weeks ago and said she’s getting up to speed on how redistricting works.
“For sure we should involve the public, absolutely. I think it’s not only good practice but it’s a requirement of law,” Foley said in an interview last week.
“So having transparency and outreach, making sure we have materials translated so everyone in our community can participate, making sure that we have advanced notice of all the different meetings and outreach opportunities, making sure that the maps that are discussed are available for people in a way that’s easy to access, getting input from the community is important,” as well as “making sure we understand where we might be unintentionally displacing cultural groups,” she added.
Foley provided the redistricting timeline officials are considering – something no other county officials would disclose.
County officials are considering doing one outreach meeting in each supervisor’s district in the coming months, for a total of five meetings.
That’s fewer outreach meetings in Orange County than are planned by the state redistricting commission, which has completed or planned at least eight in OC.
The outreach plan is expected to come before supervisors in June for approval, Foley said.
The last time OC supervisors redrew the boundaries, they handed off the process to their own political aides and focused on protecting their own seats.
“Continuity of representation” was the way supervisors put it in their goals for redistricting a decade ago.
During the 2011 redistricting, Latino and Vietnamese resident groups criticized the county for not doing much of its redistricting work in public.
Voice of OC reported at the time that at their few public meetings, committee members heard public concerns and then, with little discussion, voted for the maps already drawn by the supervisors’ offices.
The final map approved in 2011 split Orange County’s sizable Latino community into two districts.
And it redrew the supervisors’ district boundaries in a way that a local Republican Party leader said guaranteed GOP victories in all five seats.
The next few years saw solid wins for the GOP, with Republican candidates winning all county supervisor elections in the seven years after the maps were redrawn.
Some local residents are now calling on supervisors to start publicly discussing redistricting this month – and looking at appointing a citizens commission to oversee the process.
“Redistricting impacts how responsive elected officials are to communities,” Brea resident Jonathan Paik told county supervisors at their latest meeting in late April.
“Given the vital support county services provide to the most vulnerable here in Orange County, it is critical that community needs rather than party politics guide how Orange County Board of [Supervisors] district lines are drawn.”
There was no response from county supervisors at the meeting.
Residents also have called for the supervisors to not pick the lines, and instead have an independent commission draw them – like the process California voters approved in 2008 for state and Congressional districts.
Now, there’s questions about the very structure of the Board of Supervisors – including whether expanding the number of board members would bring representatives closer to the people.
When Orange County was formed in 1889, its five supervisors each represented about 2,700 residents. Today, they each represent about 640,000 people.
Smoller is among those who question why cities like Garden Grove City Council has seven members, while the county Board of Supervisors – which is supposed to represent far more people – has five.
“The board of supervisors is an artifact of the previous century – in fact the century previous to that. It was constructed when there were more cows than people” in Orange County, he said.
“Those are the larger structural questions that do need to be looked at. Because we’ve got 3.1 million people.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.