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San Antonio Attempts to Make Redistricting More Transparent

The City Council appointed residents to create a redistricting map that would make the process more politically independent. Some want the city to consider an independent commission for future maps.

(TNS) — When Carlton Soules served on San Antonio City Council a decade ago, he had what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to influence the next 10 years of city politics.

Political boundaries are redrawn every decade based on population changes seen in the census. Called redistricting, the process often plays out as a contentious political battle across the United States. If they play their cards right, elected officials can essentially choose their voters by extending a boundary or moving a neighborhood out of a district — also known as gerrymandering.

Ten years ago, redistricting discussions among Soules and other council members mostly happened behind closed doors. This time around, however, City Council attempted to put some distance between elected officials and the politically charged process by appointing residents to create a map that will be approved by the council.

Soules was appointed to the redistricting advisory committee by District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry to represent the Northeast Side district. Now, Soules has a second opportunity, but in a more public forum that allows residents to participate.

"I think being transparent is better, especially because of the lack of faith in government," Soules said. "But it's a more cumbersome process and takes much longer."

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he created the advisory committee to ensure that residents had a role in redistricting, and he's supportive of officially removing City Council from the process.

But it would take a city charter amendment approved by voters to make the change permanent.

"I'm inclined to support anything that further codifies the independence of the redistricting process from the politics of elected offices," he said.

When the next city charter review comes up, Nirenberg would like voters to consider making an independent redistricting commission a formal part of the process.

State and federal seats often garner a lot of attention for egregious maps. The Justice Department sued Texas in December over its redistricting, alleging it discriminated against minority voters in redrawing boundaries for state and federal seats.

But city and county positions have a huge impact on day-to-day life, with officials who determine things such as how much bond funding goes to drainage in a neighborhood or where parks will be built.

"We see some of the most bare-knuckled fights over political power at the local level," said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director of Common Cause, a government watchdog organization.

Independent redistricting commissions have emerged in many places as a way to stop politicians from controlling the votes. Arizona, Idaho, Michigan and other states and cities have adopted the practice.

Voters in San Diego, which is similar in size to San Antonio, supported an independent redistricting commission in 1992 and agreed to change the city's charter, guaranteeing City Council would no longer have the power to draw and approve its own district map.

Christopher Rice-Wilson, an associate director at Alliance San Diego who runs the nonprofit's redistricting program, has spent the last year telling his San Diego neighbors about the importance of a new map.

Rice-Wilson thinks taking that responsibility away from elected officials has made San Diego's representation look more like the diverse city it serves, leading to policies that better represent everyone.

Redistricting is the bedrock of a healthy city, he believes.

"It impacts so much: resource distribution, community development and planning, budgets and taxation. Everything is impacted," Rice-Wilson said. "And it's a 10-year cycle, so if we wanna build power, change leadership — this is an opportunity."

From Closed Doors to Public Meetings

A decade ago, San Antonio City Council members and then-Mayor Julián Castro met one on one with a consultant to discuss changes to district boundaries.

The city then hosted public hearings to gather feedback, but residents weren't directly involved in making the new map.

This cycle, council members and Nirenberg appointed 23 people to the committee that's overseeing the map reconfiguration. It's meant to make the process more transparent, and it's the first time a group of residents will draft a council map. Staff or council members drafted prior maps, assistant city attorney Iliana Castillo Daily said.

Meetings are posted on the SA Speak Up website under the meetings and events tab. Residents also can view the draft map recently approved by the committee and give feedback.

Experts say there can be problems with a committee that's only advisory, though. Members appointed by a city council can hold loyalty to their elected official rather than the public.

Also, former Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran — sister to current District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran — sits on the committee. That wouldn't be allowed in nearby Austin's independent redistricting rules, which state that someone can't be on the commission if they were elected to city office in the last five years.

Austin created its commission in 2013 when it shifted from at-large to single-member districts.

Even if commission members separate themselves, San Antonio City Council still holds the power to give final approval to the map or make changes. But Nirenberg, in an October memo to the council, said the committee will submit its final map recommendation with the expectation that the council either reject it or approve it without making changes as a way to build community trust.

About San Diego

While independent commissions are growing in popularity, San Diego's has been around for decades.

The commission has nine members, one for each City Council district there, said Lora Fleming, who serves as its chief of staff. (She is a former communications director for a city councilwoman).

About 100 people applied to join the commission for the current cycle. Three retired judges picked who they thought were the best candidates for the job.

The judges chose commission members based on background and qualifications — it's not blind. But the judges are selected at random, Fleming said.

Success also requires a large pool of commission applicants, said Feng of Common Cause. Sometimes members are chosen randomly and later vetted for diversity. It also works to have a nonpolitical entity, such as an ethics commission, choose members, Feng said.

The member selection process, rules for transparency and conflicts of interest, and robust public engagement are key to a successful independent commission, experts say.

For many cities and counties, the pandemic made this census cycle more difficult. San Diego held all its commission meetings remotely. Even so, up to 200 people showed up online to give feedback, Fleming said.

The San Diego redistricting commission follows bylaws that emphasize impartiality. Commission members can't run for City Council office for at least five years after serving on the commission, Fleming said.

Members also abide by strict rules to ensure they're not doing public business in private. When someone contacts a commissioner to talk about maps, they must record it in a public log.

This census cycle, one commissioner resigned after allegations she had a conflict of interest that led her to have redistricting conversations outside public meetings. An alternate took her place.

What Does Stronger Democracy Look Like?

It can be hard to tell if an independent commission successfully reduces gerrymandering and increases residents' power. Rice-Wilson suggested a community can look to the ordinances a city passes to begin to understand the impact.

"Are the laws more fair or more in tune with the needs of communities that have been marginalized? Does the budget address the disparities in resources?" he said.

Rice-Wilson looks at the capital improvements projects in the yearly budget, broken down by district. He's checking to see if poor communities are getting infrastructure investment at the same rate as more wealthy neighborhoods.

And he's found that a previous gap is slowly closing now that San Diego has a more diverse City Council than in the past.

Equitable infrastructure investment also is a concern in San Antonio. East Side Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez has questioned the city's funding formula for repairing its worst roads, saying existing plans leave historically marginalized communities with too great a need.

Voter turnout in San Diego's districts after the maps have been redrawn also can reflect a change, Rice-Wilson said.

"Turnout usually goes up when people are excited about who they can vote for," Rice-Wilson said. "If people feel empowered, they turn out."

Though San Diego's redistricting commission has been around longer than others, it still has operated only three times. But the commission studies itself to make improvements, said Sharon Spivak, former city counsel to the commission during the 2010-2011 census cycle.

For example, when San Diego City Council expanded to nine members, so did the redistricting commission.

Cities and counties are increasingly turning to independent commissions to handle redistricting, but they aren't perfect. It can be difficult for once-a-decade commissioners to know all the laws around redistricting or how to run an open meeting.

And despite the goal of independence, many commissions still are subject to residents with partisan politics or those with ill intentions who can show up to public meetings and give feedback like anyone else. That's led some to worry that independent commissions aren't insulated enough from politics.

"Plenty of people have tried creatively to get their way with the commission," in California, Feng said. "But selecting a group of people who are savvy and listening for exactly that kind of thing makes them well inoculated to those lobbying efforts."

Sometimes a commission's own rules can work against it, too. A city doesn't want conflict of interest rules to be so strict they exclude good candidates who are actively engaged, said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. His work focuses on redistricting, elections and voting rights.

Li pointed to the independent commission in Austin. Rules stipulate that members must have voted in a certain number of recent elections, but there's a cap on how much they could have donated to city campaigns.

"You have to be engaged enough to always vote but never do anything else," he said. "Sometimes people do design disqualifiers too strictly."

Fleming, the chief of staff for the San Diego commission, said she sees where her city's process can improve — such as using a selection entity other than retired judges, who could be seen as political.

"I think it's a better solution, and it works better than having elected officials," Fleming said. "But do I think it completely alleviates all gerrymandering or at least the attempt? I would say no."

Rice-Wilson agrees that San Diego's independent commission ultimately works better than when City Council members draw maps themselves. The commission hit bumps along the way this year, such as preliminary map that he said didn't consider public input.

But in the end, members adopted a map more in line with what the community proposed, he said. While there's always room for reform, he thinks redistricting works pretty well in San Diego.

"It gives the community an opportunity to have a hand in the decision-making," he said. "I think that's the most we could ask for."

(c)2022 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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