Visalia on track with redistricting despite delays

Despite what City Manager Leslie Caviglia calls a “perfect storm” of delay, after a bit of schedule juggling and an extension of the mapmaking calendar Visalia is on track to have its new political map ready before the final mid-spring deadline.

 

More Hearings, Workshops Added

Even as the process moves more slowly than anticipated–this is the first time Visalia has gone through the redistricting process, having moved to by-district representation in 2015–Caviglia says the addition of two more public hearings and another pair of mapmaking workshops in an extended timeline will ensure every interested party will have an opportunity to add input before the city council makes its final decision.

“It’s not due until April 17,” Caviglia said. “We are not up against that, even with this extended deadline. We think it’s important people have that full 30 days and help if they need.

Originally, the fourth and final public hearing was scheduled for January 10, and that meeting will still be held, but now two more hearings to follow. The additional hearings and extra workshops have yet to be scheduled, as the city waits for mapping software for public use to go online.

“I think we’re all disappointed this didn’t go a little more smoothly, and the interactive tools the council thought would be available were not,” Caviglia said.

Currently, wouldbe mapmakers can draw maps on paper using the Census data for Visalia. That dataset is available at the city’s website: visalia.city/drawvisalia. Also available are the draft maps submitted so far, information on how to participate and the schedule of upcoming events related to the redistricting process.

 

Universal Frustration

At the third public hearing held December 6, the agitation was evident from those who testified, as well as from members of the city council. The lack of digital mapmaking tools stymying the process was the main complaint.

“I did pull the paper map and the Excel spreadsheet down, and worked on it for a while. It’s not impossible, but it’s cumbersome compared to (digital tools),” said Councilwoman Liz Wynn. “I used the county’s map as well where they were digital, and they calculated the balances for you, and it was much easier for me, and I’m 61 years old, so I’m not like a computer guru.”

Mayor Steve Nelsen described the city’s current relationship with its redistricting consultant, National Demographics Corporation (NDC), as “a joke,” and Councilman Brian Poochigian called the situation “crazy.”

“I think it’s crazy we don’t have a digital map, in fact, shocking to me we don’t have a digital map,” Poochigian said. “Sorry if I’m coming across as angry, but I kind of am angry, because we hired a consultant thinking that they’re going to come up with these tools, and we’re still waiting for the tools to come here. And I think the people in the crowd are angry because they want to draw maps and we don’t have the tools.”

 

Consultant Blames Feds

The person the complaints were aimed at was Ken Chawkins, representative for NDC, and he blamed delays on a long wait for Census counts. The mapmaking software, he said, is already available, but a bottleneck was created by the vast number of cities and other bodies trying to access the data necessary to make it useful.

“We have the tool. The thing that was late was the data loaded for the city of Visalia,” Chawkins said. “And, simply stated, it was because there … is a long line of people trying to get it. There are districts and jurisdictions that have an earlier deadline than you do. It’s not an excuse. I’m just explaining.”

The consultant group was paid $90,000 by the city for their advice and help, and Caviglia expressed her disappointment NDC hadn’t anticipated the difficulties in getting the census numbers.

Poochigian wondered why, since the Tulare County Board of Supervisors has the needed demographics data and has already redrawn its maps, NDC didn’t borrow it from them.

“Look, you can’t just pull from theirs and put it into yours. That’s not the way it works. It works jurisdiction by jurisdiction,” Chawkins said. “The Census gathers data. They also gather data from all different other sources. They plug it in. Is it accurate? Is it perfectly accurate? Your frustration and anger is not unique. It’s happening around the country.”

 

Racial Equity on the Map

Already, the city has held three of the four legally-required public hearings on redistricting–not including the two additional public hearings added to the calendar–as well as holding a pair of educational mapmaking workshops for citizens, but so far only three maps have been submitted for review.

The suspected reason for the slow trickle is the lack of online mapmaking software, which the city hoped to have ready weeks ago, and which would make balancing the numbers far easier. Councilwoman Wynn described how, while adjusting borders to reach a balanced division of Visalia’s 141,998 residents into five districts during her mapmaking experiments, she ran into problems satisfying the requirements of the state’s Voting Maps Act. The right software would have provided the adjusted data in real time, vastly simplifying the process.

“We need to look at the communities of interest, racially and neighborhood-wise, because we’re really off balance for being 51% or so Hispanic and only having two majority-Hispanic districts,” Wynn said. “That’s what I was running into the other day when I was kind of trying to balance things. Just what you were talking about. It wasn’t that easy.”

 

Census Data Still Wrong

Balancing various legal requirements for the final map requires a close eye on how adjustments to borders changes the population balance in different ways, and that complicated function is what the mapmaking software the city expected to have in place makes simple.

“That’s part of the reason staff had recommended that we have two different options of maps when we first brought the consultant contract forward, and that was very much where we thought we should be, and that’s not just the way things are shaping out,” Caviglia said.

Now that they have the numbers, there’s another hitch: Much of the information is inaccurate.

“There are two currently (pieces of software) that the city’s information is uploaded into. One is Dave’s Redistricting, and one is the Maptitude,” Caviglia said. “Neither of them are accurate at this point. Some of the street names are wrong. Some of the locations of major features within the city are wrong.”

That means that even now that mapmaking software is in the hands of city staff, they’re reluctant to make it publicly available until the data is corrected, fearing those errors could create even more delay.

That prompted a harsh criticism of NDC from Mayor Nelsen, who said mapmakers should move ahead using the raw data, pen and paper.

“I think we were told what we wanted to hear, and this is just a generalization, what we all wanted to hear. ‘You can do a crayon, you can do it on your computer; we even got a digital map. We gave you the world. You take the pieces you want.’ In reality, we don’t have any of that,” he said. “So, I’m not saying we were sold a bill of goods, but in reality someone came to our front door and sold us an Encyclopædia Britannica because they told me my kids needed it. In reality they really didn’t. That’s what’s happened today.”

 

Equity Coalition to Submit Maps

The Equity Coalition, which brought some controversy to the county’s redistricting process with threats of legal action if diversity requirements weren’t met, will also submit redistricting maps for Visalia, and their Lori Pesante, director of civic engagement and government relations for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which is advising the coalition, suggested the council use its online mapmaking tools.

“We are going to be submitting two maps,” Pesante said. “We will have an interactive web map, where if you would like to see additional layers of data sets, like median household income or rent or homeowner heat maps, that’s been really helpful for other jurisdictions to see, especially as we’re considering how to make sure we’re creating a map that’s going to help Visalia be the strongest democracy that it can be for the next 10 years.”

She called for districts to have a diversity with almost no deviation from the 51% Hispanic population concentration in Visalia.

“I really want to highlight the fact that when I come back in January I’m hoping that those maps that have been submitted will be analyzed according to that low, low, low deviation,” Pesante said. “The Voting Rights Act districts that get created, because those are the big rocks that gotta get put in the jar first. You gotta put those in first or else you can’t go to those other criteria until you’ve done that.”

NDC, she said, should provide the data to ensure that actual diversity within the districts represents the census data.

“And your consultant should be doing that analysis,” Pesante said. “They should have a print-out and put on the website of every criteria in the Fair Maps Act and the extent to which the proposed map meets that criteria, and then you get to decide if there are additional thresholds you want to impose.”

 

Software Available Soon

The misnamed streets and mislocated places are being corrected, and the simpler version of the mapmaking software NDC offers–Dave’s Redistricting–will be available at the city’s website within days, Caviglia said.

“Dave’s Redistricting will be up and available this week. I’ve done it myself, and I’m not technical, and I found it easy to use,” she said. “Once we have that date, we’ll schedule two workshops.”

The workshops will provide information on how to draw a draft map, including how to use the software. Help from city staff will also be available by calling City Hall, and in-person for an hour before every city council meeting. The sixth and hopefully last public hearing on redistricting will likely take place in February, and the scheduling will give mapmakers at least 30 days after the fourth public hearing scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on January 10.

Selection of the final map will come after the sixth hearing, perhaps on the same day.

“We’ll just kind of see what the council and the public wants at that time,” Caviglia said. “We expect the sixth public hearing to take place in February. I don’t think we can predetermine an adoption date because it depends on the public and the council.”

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