Visalia City Council Delays Splitting into Voting Districts

Choosing a final district map for the 2016 elections was put on hold during Visalia City Council’s May 4 meeting. Councilmember Bob Link could not attend due to illness, and the other council members felt that this historic decision that should not be made without him.

Three public hearings have been held  since March, when Doug Johnson, from the National Demographics Corporation, began guiding the council through the process of narrowing the 14 submitted maps down to four. Out of the four maps selected, two were drawn by the public and two were drawn by Johnson, a professional demographer. Johnson also pointed out that the council did not have to pick a perfect map. The consulting firm could make small adjustments through their specialized computer program to even out the districts’ boundaries and balance out the population.

During a work session in April, the council expressed a preference for maps that were easy to read, community orientated, and that had one strong Hispanic district. They were also keen on any map that had a second viable Hispanic district. The council felt that as Visalia grew, the second viable district would increase in Hispanic voters and result in a more diverse city council. It is interesting to note that the two chosen maps submitted by the public were drawn up by Hispanics. Vincent Salinas’ submitted a map focused on “communities of interest.” The other finalist was drawn by GI Forum, an Hispanic organization that also heavily leaned on the concept of neighborhoods.

Even though race could not be a predominant factor in the final decision, the city could be sued if the council chose a map that did not have at least one predominately Hispanic district. Because of the Voting Rights Act, any map that did not have at least one district over 55% Hispanic was considered too be too risky to consider.

The biggest difference between the public’s maps and those drawn by the NDC was “pairing.” Pairing is when two sitting council members end up in the same voting district. While NDC seemed to believe this was a huge problem, the public did not. The council did not voice its opinion about pairing but have consistently shown an interest in the maps drawn by NDC.  None of the NDC maps had two council members in the same district. To achieve this goal the NDC maps cut through neighborhoods and have the  appearance of gerrymandering.

Of the 11 maps drawn by the public, all had at least one pairing, the most common between Warren Gubbler and Amy Shuklian, who live in the same vicinity around Akers Road.

The Last Public Hearing

May 4 was the last opportunity for the public to comment on the maps. Vincent Salinas spoke first during the public hearing to defend his concept of “Communities of Interest.” Collins called Salina’s map intriguing. He could see that district 1 was oriented around the downtown but asked him to explain his four other districts.  Salinas said that he grew up in Visalia and saw each neighborhoods’ evolution: such as district 2 being the result of Golden West High School that opened in 1978, and district 5, the Linwood area, that was all farmland and dairies and now has recently turned residential. Salinas said that when he created his districts he did not take ethnicity into consideration but that it just happened because he understand the neighborhoods. Salinas’ map has one district that is 58% Hispanic.

Rene Lapin, a community activist, commended Salinas on his integrity for not taking into consideration his place of residence when drawing his map. She said that although he would have a good chance of winning an election to the city council in the Hispanic district because of his surname, he put himself in District 3 which is predominantly White.  Lapin has criticized the two NDC maps for creating districts that weren’t in the best interest of Visalia but rather the incumbents. She stated that “the more the public is able to participate, the greater degree of credibility.”

Former Visalia Mayor Jesus Gamboa came to the public hearing to support the maps drawn by Salinas and the G1 Forum. Gamboa said that neighborhoods should stay together and that the borders should not be stretched or changed to accommodate an incumbent. He said that the two NDC maps didn’t pass the gerrymandering smell test.

Al though the council members knew they were not taking a final vote that night, they revealed which final map they preferred. Collins said that he could live with either Salina’s map or the one drawn by the GI Forum. He did fear the competing interests that neighborhoods could generate. “What might be best for a particular district may not be what is best for Visalia.” He also lamented over the possible sway that money could have on a small district. “It doesn’t take much.”

Councilmember Gubler said that he would support NDC 3, the map drawn by Doug Johnson. He liked that map because it had a large Hispanic district of 60%. It also had a second viable Hispanic district, a Mooney corridor, a downtown district, and did not pair two council members in the same district.

Mayor Nelsen said that he preferred the other map drawn by Johnson, NDC 2. He liked the fact that there was room to expand each district when adjustments will have to be made after the 2020 census.

After the council picks a final map, the last step will be to choose which districts will be up for reelection in 2016. Two seats will be up in 2016, and three in 2018. With the old at-large system Bob Link and Amy Shuklian would have been up for reelection. The path of least resistance for the council would be choosing one of NDC’s maps that do not pair any candidates. Then the council could vote that District 5 and District 3 be on the 2016 ballot where Shuklian and Link live respectively. Johnson did recommend that the predominantly Hispanic district come up for election in 2016, but it wasn’t a legal requirement. Depending on the map, putting the Hispanic district up for election might cut Mayor Nelsen’s term short.

After the 2020 census districts will need to be redrawn. The city council will receive the new population data by 2021 and the new districts need to be ready by 2022.

Council member Amy Shuklian never participated in choosing a map or in the debate. Her vote against the final four maps last month was a protest vote for being “blackmailed” into cutting Visalia into districts. Visalia voted down the idea of districts years ago. She feels as though she represents all of Visalia, not just one district.

The regular city council meeting on May 18 will be held at the convention center. The city staff is anticipating a large turnout for a discussion on the sign ordinance. A final map of the five voting districts will also be chosen at that meeting.

Council Votes to donate $10,000 to Houston School Park

The city council voted 5-0 to donate $10,000 to the Houston School Park. Two years ago Houston Elementary School, with the help and encouragement of the Neighborhood Church, decided to collaborate on making a park. Houston is located in Northern Visalia in an older, under-resourced neighborhood with no parks within walking distance.

The Church and school decided they needed a safe place where families can exercise and play. The Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) has agreed to let the park be built on an empty field connected with the school. The VUSD also agreed to continue to maintain the property.

Houston School parents, students and volunteers from Neighborhood Church have already collected over $133,000 through fundraisers, donations and in-kind gifts. They need an additional $135,000 to install a walking path, picnic area and playground. A group of students and parents made a presentation in front of the council asking them for financial help. The city staff had suggested $10,000.

If the money were to come out of the General Fund both Link and Nelsen were against the donation. Nelsen said that they would not be good leaders if they spent the General Fund which has not fully recovered from the recession. Link did not want to set a precedent and said there were dozens of worthy projects in which to donate.

Gubler responded by saying that this is exactly the precedent he wants the city to set. All of the current parks have to be built and maintained by the city. He saw this as a bargain and thought the city should be encouraging more of this type of civic involvement. Neither the building nor the maintenance is going to be the city’s financial responsibility.

Collins didn’t think $10,000 was enough and was leaning towards $15,000. He felt that the money should come from developer impact specially set aside to build parks. He mentioned that a new housing development was being built just eight blocks away and the fees should come from there. Alex Peltzer, city attorney, was skeptical that those development fees could be used for the Houston Park.

Shuklian reminded the council that they donate $10,000 every year to the Freedom Fireworks Show on the Fourth of July, but that event will probably be canceled. Because no organization has stepped up to organize the show, Shuklian suggested that the money go towards the park. Shuklian moved that the city staff research the possibility of the money coming out of the developer’s impact fees, and if not, use the money normally given to the Fourth of July show.

City Council considers putting bond on 2016 ballot

At the April 20 city council meeting the council discussed the possibility of putting a bond measure on the 2016 ballot. Whereas sales tax revenues have increased since the recession, the costs of running the city have increased faster. During the council’s January retreat Eric Frost, Deputy City Manager, told the council that they were going to have to get creative. He said that maintaining and improving the infrastructure, and paying for all of the things the citizens of Visalia want, will be a challenge.

To help make a decision about the use and possibility of a bond measure, the council voted on resurrecting the Blue Ribbon Committee from 2013. That committee explored the possibility of increasing Visalia’s sales tax. The committee eventually voted to put off raising taxes for a few years until there was a definite need.

The current need, as expressed by several council members, is a new city civic center because the current administration buildings are falling apart. Other needs were discussed such as road maintenance and parks. The council voted for the Blue Ribbon Committee and the Citizens Advisory Committee to collaborate on deciding how the city should use the bond money.

The city isn’t the only entity that needs money. College of the Sequoias, Visalia Unified School District and Kaweah Delta Hospital can all put competing bonds on the 2016 and 2018 ballot, leaving it less likely that a city bond would pass.

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