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Preliminary Santa Cruz district election maps shared with public

Original Sentinel article

By: Ryan Stuart

Residents got an opportunity to provide feedback on six different district maps that will layout the future of elections in the city of Santa Cruz starting in November.

The city has been in the process of converting to a district-based election system for the last two years. A pending lawsuit alleges the city’s election process violates state voting laws and does not ensure minorities are represented in local government.

The council has disagreed with the allegation throughout the process, especially as it currently seats its most diverse council in history. In recent years, the city has shown little to no bias toward protected classes when selecting local leaders, councilmembers argued as several Black representatives have joined the ranks and the current council is primarily women, including the city’s first Iranian representative.

Similar lawsuits are ongoing throughout the state. The most notable one, which city’s like Santa Cruz have in their sights, is in Santa Monica. However, Santa Cruz’s Demographer Doug Johnson urged the council not to rely too heavily on the Southern Californian city’s decision, as district elections would affect the two councils differently.

“The other twist there is the proposed remedy district the plaintiffs have asked for would put the three Latino and the African American (councilmembers) all in one seat,” Johnson said. “The League of Women Voters has filed a review saying, ‘dismiss this case, not that they don’t have polarized voting, but because the harm would be worse than at-large.’”

Johnson also noted that the city’s legal fees fighting the lawsuit are already estimated to be around eight figures.

In order to avoid its own lawsuit altogether, Santa Cruz has the option of transitioning to district elections. Recently, the council decided to leave residents with two choices on how many districts the city will have.

Currently, the city has seven at-large council members. Those members choose amongst themselves who the mayor and vice mayor will be. The mayor is typically the vice mayor from the previous year, with the vice mayor being the highest vote getter from the most recent election.

“The debate on whether six or seven is better, is really better held in the context of that ballot measure,” Johnson said.

In June, local voters will get to choose either a seven-district map, where the council continues its rotating mayor, or a six-district map in which the mayor is directly elected at-large and serves a four-year term. That decision will then be immediately applied to the 2022 general election in November.

Councilmember Justin Cummings expressed an interest in delaying transitioning to a directly elected mayor should the residents decide to take that option. His hope was to delay the election until 2024 as presidential elections tend to have a higher voter turnout.

However, City Attorney Tony Condotti said that would not be a likely situation. While the ballot measure does not require the mayoral election in 2022, it does state it is for the purpose of an election in 2022, he noted.

“My interpretation of the charter amendment is if the charter amendment passes and if the vote is certified by the July 6 deadline, then there would be a mayoral election in November 2022,” Condotti said.

The transition into districts will also change the election cycle. In a six-district election, it is proposed that residents vote on District 4 — filled by Cummings — the vacant District 3 and the new mayor in 2022. Meanwhile voters will choose who represents District 1 — filled by Vice Mayor Martine Watkins — District 2 — filled by Mayor Sonja Brunner — District 5 — filled by Sandy Brown — and District 6 — filled by Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Renee Golder and Donna Meyers in 2024.

Alternatively, voters can choose to make decisions on districts 4 and 6 as well as the mayor in 2022 and vote on the remaining four districts in 2024.

A seven-district map proposes electing representatives for districts 4 and 5, District 5 this time occupied by the trio filling District 6 on previous maps, as well as either district 6 or 7, both of which will be vacant in 2022. The remaining four districts would be voted on in 2024.

An alternative sequence would have voters fill both of the vacant districts in 2022, as well as Councilmember Cummings’ district. Then, in 2024, they will decide on the remaining four districts.

Cummings’, Golder’s and Meyers’ term all expire for the 2022 election. Golder is the only councilmember eligible for re-election as Cummings is running for county supervisor and Meyers terms-out.

A fourth seat may open for special election or appointment by the council if Councilmember Kalantari-Johnson is elected to the County Board of Supervisors. Special election or council appointment is also how the city will fill a district in which no one ran or was elected.

Residents and councilmembers alike seemed to agree on things like keeping certain neighborhoods such as Seabright in the same district, while splitting up the lower and upper westside neighborhoods into two districts. Councilmember Cummings also expressed the intent to keep the Beach Flats, Lower Ocean and Downtown areas together, as they all deal with a common issue in summertime traffic impacts.

One controversial issue revolved around the university. In a seven-district map, UC Santa Cruz would likely get its own district, or even be split amongst two districts. While a six-district would include the university in another district.

Residents worried university students would dilute the interests of other neighborhoods in their districts. Other residents felt it would be unfair for the university to get a district at all since the campus is not subject to the same municipal codes the rest of the city is.

“Students are people. Students are residents. We have just as much of a right to be represented as anybody else,” said Student Housing Coalition President Zennon Ulyate-Crow. “The fact that 20,000 students staff and faculty are around UCSC in a city of 60,000 is 30% and we haven’t seen that kind of representation in a long time is something really worth considering.”

Councilmembers and City Attorney Condotti argued on behalf of the students. While the university is not subject to many municipal codes, students living on campus are still affected by decisions that are made by the council, and therefore should have a voice in local government.

“People who live on campus aren’t just isolated to living on campus. They’re going to freely move throughout the community,” Cummings said. “If people are shopping in town, they are going to be subjected to the same laws as people living in the rest of the community.”

However, district maps are subject to change, as the six presented to the city are just drafts. Discussion from both the council and residents are taken into account to adjust the maps in the best way possible. Residents are even encouraged to try composing their own map on the city’s website.

The council will reconvene again on April 19 to discuss how the districts should be laid out once more. Currently the city must choose two of six maps, but could be faced with more options in the future. All maps must be posted to the city’s website April 12 and community created maps must be submitted by April 7 for review.

The council will then need to narrow down its selected maps at the April 19 meeting and may even end up with its final two selections that day.

“The first time through the process is so important,” Johnson said. “You are setting up the districts — while they will be revised every 10 years, these districts will be the core and the basis those revisions are made on for many decades to come.”

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