In a letter dated April 4, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors was threatened with legal action if it does not take measures to correct an alleged violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
The letter, signed by Marguerite Melo of the law firm Melo and Sarsfield, stated the firm represents a “group of voters who reside within the jurisdictional boundaries of the County of Tulare.”
The letter also stated the Dolores Huerta Foundation is also affiliated with the potential legal action.
The pending lawsuit is “based upon the County of Tulare’s illegal dilution of the minority/Latino voting community as applied to how board seats are drawn.”
Melo further stated in her letter that the firm will hold off on potential litigation until May 5, 2018, allowing the county some time for thought and response.
The last redrawing of districts
Tulare County’s supervisors have been elected by districts since the mid 1800’s, according to Julieta Martinez, the board’s chief of staff. The last time the TC Board of Supervisors realigned its districts was in 2011, which was based upon overall population – distributing the districts equally with the amount of residents in each district; not voters, and not by race.
In the agenda item referencing the redistricting of the September 27, 2011, Board of Supervisors meeting, the summary included –
“The Elections Code provides that following the federal census, and using that census as a basis, the Board of Supervisors must adjust the boundaries of the supervisorial districts of the county as needed, so that the districts shall be as nearly equal in population as may be and shall comply with the provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.”
It further stated –
“The Board has determined that the following optional criteria will be considered in review the proposed plans: topography; geography; cohesiveness, contiguity, integrity and compactness of territory; and communities of interest. The Board has also determined that the following local criteria will be considered in reviewing the proposed plans: avoid dividing urban growth areas where possible; facilitate access of constituents to their Supervisors; and avoid splitting election precincts wherever possible.”
However, with approximately 70% of the county being Hispanic, Melo said in an interview, each district needs to be representative of its population.
Melo also cited that historically only one Hispanic has served on the county’s Board of Supervisors, and he was appointed to a partial term, not elected.
Melo said she was approached by several individuals within the county and asked to take a further look into the situation.
“There has to be fair representation,” she said. “There is a clear violation” as to how the districts are currently distributed.
The county’s official response to an inquiry from the Valley Voice was:
“The county of Tulare has received the letter from Melo and Sarsfield dated April 4, 2018, and will review the allegations with due diligence.
“We do want to remind anyone who is eligible but has not registered to vote that the deadline to register to vote in the next election is May 21.”
According to the office of Melo and Sarsfield, they have not yet received any response to their letter.
District 2 Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said the board has not yet had the opportunity to discuss the letter. He was deeply involved in the 2011 redistricting, he said, and “is very confident in that.”
In an April 10 radio interview on K-TIP, District 5 Supervisor Mike Ennis, did, to some extent, address the potential lawsuit.
There are 460,000 residents in Tulare County with 90,000 in each (of five) districts, he said. “You just can’t go and make spots all over the county, and call that a district – a district has to coincide and be within itself.
“It’s all defined on how many residents live within that district – it’s not on the voting. It’s not on how many people are registered to vote. We got no control over people getting registered to vote. That’s up to them to get registered to vote.”
Ennis said it was an outside committee that worked on the redistricting issue in 2011.
District 5, he said, is probably 70% Hispanic with Porterville being over 50% Hispanic, and the smaller outlying areas being almost 100% Hispanic.
“I think we did a very good job on this thing. I don’t know what they are trying to pull,” he said, “They’re just trying to get some money, I guess.”
He ended by saying redistricting is done every 10 years.
He should probably not comment any further, he said, and that the board will probably be “brought up to speed” about it in closed session.
Kern County lost similar case in court
In a similar case involving Kern County in February of this year, Kern County’s Board of Supervisors lost its battle. A US District Judge ruled district boundaries, created by the County in 2011, were illegally drawn and in violation of the US Voting Rights Act. That suit was brought against Kern County by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) defending several Kern County voters, according to The Bakersfield Californian.
New district boundaries have been agreed upon by the county and MALDEF, with a few tweaks still to be made. The new districts will need approval through an ordinance by that county’s boards of supervisors. Three district board seats will be up for election in November.
Melo said she has “little faith” the Tulare County Board of Supervisors will take steps to address redistricting itself. “I am pretty confident we will have to file a lawsuit.”
Disclosure: The owners of the Valley Voice have previously used the services of Melo and Sarsfield in personal matters.