Richmond seeks more time to transition to district elections

City negotiating for more time to transition to district elections
Robert McEntire (on far right), the city’s consulting demographer, trained community members drawing district maps at a community workshop at Richmond City Hall on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. (Photo: Mike Kinney)

Like it or not, Richmond is in the process of transitioning from a system of at-large City Council elections, where voters elect all City Council members, to a system of district elections, where voters elect one councilmember from a particular district of the city where they reside.

And with only three months to divide the city into six districts, each equally populated and mindful of factors such as demographics and geography, some community members are feeling rushed and concerned.

“I request that this City Council ask for a 90-day extension so we can have neighbors and family members in the city be part of this [process] in a real and intentional way,” said Edith Pastrano, a Richmond resident.

The city says it is in the process of negotiating for an extension with attorney Scott Rafferty, whose legal threat in September prompted the transition to district elections.

Rafferty has charged that Richmond’s at-large system of elections violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the electoral influence of Latino, Asian and African American communities. At-large elections, according to the attorney, enable high-voter turnout areas like the Richmond Annex, Marina Bay and Point Richmond to control city elections.

Rafferty’s letter demanded that Richmond agree to transition to a district election system within 45 days, and gave another 90 days for the city to develop and adopt a district map, or else endure a costly legal challenge.

Photo: Mike Kinney

Richmond has little choice but to capitulate, as the law is on Rafferty’s side. Currently, 126 cities, 215 school districts, 34 community college districts and 35 water and other special districts have either made the switch to district elections or are in the process under threat of similar legal action.

So far, no attempt at challenging the legal action has prevailed, and some jurisdictions that have tried are being forced to pay steep legal settlements, including Palmdale ($4.7 million), Santa Clara ($3.16 million) and Modesto ($3 million).

If Richmond heeds to Rafferty’s demands, the law caps the fees the attorney can recover from the city at $30,000.

So far, the city has held two public hearings on the transition and two community workshops designed to gather public input on how the maps will be drawn. At the latest workshop, which occurred Monday at City Hall, Robert McEntire, the city’s consulting demographer, trained community members on the rules of drawing district maps, the legal criteria and the mapping tools available to them.

“We want the public to feel free to submit their own maps for council and public debate before adoption,” McEntire said.

Photo: Mike Kinney

The final map must abide by certain legal criteria: that districts comprise of equal populations, abide by the Federal Voting Rights Act, and conduct no racial gerrymandering, which is drawing district lines in a way that would prevent racial minorities from electing their preferred candidates.

Among other criteria, districts must be geographically contiguous, meaning a district can’t divide another in two. Also, residents can lobby to draw district lines based on neighborhoods and communities of interest. Districts would ideally have clear boundaries, like mountains or a freeway, to the extent that is possible.

Draft maps are expected to be presented to the City Council for public hearings on Dec. 3 and Dec. 17. Two additional workshops will be scheduled during that time period. The goal is to adopt a final map and election ordinance on Jan. 14.

That adopted map, however, will need to be updated following the 2020 Census.

For more information, visit the city’s District Elections website here.

Photo credit: Mike Kinney