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As Orange County’s powerful county supervisors gear up to redraw their own election districts, questions are mounting about whether they will protect their own re-elections by jettisoning parts of their district that didn’t vote for them, and adding in areas that are more favorable at the ballot box.

Areas getting particular attention among county insiders are whether supervisors will move the heavily Democratic communities of Santa Ana, UC Irvine and Laguna Beach out of Republican supervisors’ districts and into nearby districts represented by the board’s two Democratic supervisors.

Four of the five county supervisors didn’t return phone messages for comment on this story.

Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who did pick up the phone, said he wasn’t aware of any such plans, adding he doesn’t expect the districts to change much.

“I haven’t heard anything, and I’m not sure what I would give up to get. I have no idea what would make my district safer, for me,” Chaffee said.

“And I don’t know how anyone can figure it out at this point without the [new U.S. Census] data yet being released. I don’t really expect too much change,” he added.

Shirley Grindle, a longtime county government watchdog who has been observing supervisors since the 1950s, is skeptical.

In order for redistricting to help residents, as opposed to politicians, Grindle says an independent commission needs to do the work of redrawing election boundaries for offices – not the Board of Supervisors. 

“The only appropriate and ethical thing for the Board to do is to appoint an independent commission to come up with a redistricting map,’ ” said Grindle, who was a lead author on the county’s 1978 campaign finance limits law as well as the 2016 county Ethics Commission.

“The Board needs to stay completely divorced from this process in order to avoid accusations of ‘feathering their own nest.’ ”

Shirley Grindle, a longtime county government watchdog who has been observing supervisors since the 1950s

Case in point, she says, is the recent action by three supervisors to put a measure on the ballot that resets and extends their own term limits, using ballot language that was widely seen as deceptive and self-serving by observers from across the political spectrum.

The ballot language supported by Chaffee and supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do simply called the measure a “lifetime ban after three terms.”

Conservative and liberal residents – who waited 7 hours to speak when the item was brought up at the end of the supervisor’s agenda – called the measure’s language “sneaky” and a misleading effort by supervisors to extend their own power.

The only public comments supporting the measure were from the three supervisors who voted to put it on the ballot.

A few days later, state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom killed the measure when they approved a new state law banning local ballot measures from the upcoming governor recall election.

Supervisors can try again next year.

“If their term limit proposal had been written so as not to allow some of the current supervisors to serve [three] more terms, they would probably have had support from many of us because it was a lifetime ban,” Grindle said.

‘Buckle Up’

Jon Fleischman, an OC-based conservative activist who formerly served as executive director of the California Republican Party, noted that redistricting is inherently political.

“I think that everyone should have a realistic expectation that redistricting is a fundamentally political process,” said Fleischman, who publishes the Flash Report.

“This is the drawing of political boundaries, so in addition to having community groups of interest, you’re going to have political groups of interest all lobbying the Board of Supervisors,” he added.

“Buckle up, it’s going to be an interesting ride.”

OC’s Lack of Outreach So Far Stands in Contrast With Other Governments

While other nearby local governments have been gathering public input for months on what their new district maps should look like, Orange County has not.

The state commission in charge of redrawing legislative and Congressional seats also has been conducting dozens of Zoom outreach meetings.

OC officials say they plan to start public outreach in the coming weeks, through a series of meetings required by state law.

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, recently told Voice of OC.

“[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.”

What Happened Last Time

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 did go on to yield solid wins for the GOP, with Republican candidates winning all county supervisor elections in the seven years after the maps were redrawn.

Can a Commission Truly be Independent?

Supervisor Chaffee, one of two Democrats on the board traditionally dominated by the GOP,  questioned how Grindle’s proposal of an “independent” redistricting commission – such as the one California voters put in place for state and federal districts – could actually be independent.

“How would that even be composed? Would it not be a political body in the first place?” Chaffee asked.

“Who’s choosing it, how does that happen? Do you select out of a hat, put all of the judge’s names…how would you get a truly independent body, that’s the first question. If it’s truly independent and they’re smart people, fine.”

When it comes to redrawing state and federal districts, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission is required to have five Republicans, five Democrats, and four members who aren’t affiliated with either of the two major parties.

Much of the selection involves random drawing of names among applications who are deemed qualified by state auditors.

The state commission is prohibited from taking partisan considerations into account, and instead must prioritize keeping similar communities together when redrawing districts.

For reshaping the OC supervisor district lines, the incumbent supervisors will themselves be deciding how the maps will be redrawn – and which voters get moved from one district to another.

Will Politics Play a Role?

Carolyn Cavecche, a former mayor of Orange who now serves as president of the OC Taxpayers’ Association, said her group will be keeping a close eye.

“We’re going to be watching to see if it looks like any deals are being made amongst the supervisors…to move districts even more Republican or more Democrat,” she told Voice of OC.

“I think especially among District 1 and District 2, it will be interesting to see how those two specific districts’ [maps] end up in the next election cycle.”

Chaffee, who’s running for re-election next year, says he works hard to not take politics into account when he’s making decisions.

“I try to keep politics out of everything,” he said.

Yet Grindle says she’s seen a clear pattern over the decades she’s watched supervisors:

“Once they get a taste of that power and influence, it’s all about getting re-elected.”

Mike Moodian, a public policy researcher at Chapman University, said it’s typically in politicians’ nature to hold on to their influence.

“Generally,” he said, “elected officials do whatever they can do to maintain power.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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