Could San Diego County Set the Trend for Redistricting Independence?

San Diego County is exploring the idea of having three retired judges chose the county district lines every 10 years. Could it start a trend of removing the power from county supervisors?

As far as San Diego County supervisorial candidate Steve Danon sees it, there's a trend about to take flight: Removing redistricting power from supervisors.

"The bottom line is, people are very upset with the way government on a local, state and federal level is operating," said Danon, the third district seat frontrunner. "So, if this is one step to restore that accountability, to have an independent commission, it's a step in the right direction."

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L.A. County, like all California counties, allows its own county officials (in this case, the Board of Supervisors) to redraw their district lines every 10 years upon the release of new census numbers. As a result, the county's redistricting history has been rife with controversy.

This go-round, a multi-million-dollar lawsuit could be in the works, a heavy burden on taxpayers in a crushing economy.

While no real call for an independent commission exists yet in L.A. County, Danon believes San Diego's example could prove to be the trendsetter.

In early October, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted, 4-1, on a plan to explore proposing legislation to change the state elections code and county charter to make way for an independent commission -- in essence, to no longer allow county officials to make the call, often one that kept them in office.

"A lot of people, when they think of San Diego, they think of the zoo," Danon said. "They have no idea we have more than 3 million residents, larger than 20 states in the union. It's a pretty big geographical area.

"By having an independent commission, their (supervisors') lines would have been drawn differently. There's no doubt about it."

San Diego County's situation is not all that different than L.A.'s. Currently, the County is battling over whether a second Latino-majority district is necessary.

Recently, San Diego County was threatened with legal action by the ACLU, and decided to redraw one district so Latinos and African Americans would constitute a majority of the voting-age population.

"There's a reason why you have five white Republicans, and I'm a Republican and I happen to be white," said Danon of the current San Diego County board. "But there's a reason it came down the way it did."

When Danon first proposed the idea of an independent commission, he was met with unequivocal resistance, he said.

To some point, it still exists today.

It took one supervisor's change of heart, Greg Cox, to get the ball really rolling. Still, Cox's recent proposal (which gathered the 4-1 support) only proposes to turn over the power to a court-appointed panel of retired judges.

Some in San Diego, like Danon, want the board to go one step further; to endorse an independent panel of citizens.

"Back in February, all five supervisors were saying, 'Look, we're guided by the state, which says this is mandated by the county. We can't do anything to change the state law. And it's in our county charter. We can't change anything. It's business as usual," Danon said.

To allow counties to appoint independent commissions, the state legislature would need to pass an amendment or bill. From there, county charters could be changed.

"It's highly likely that the legislature would do it," Danon said. "Would the L.A. County Board of Supervisors be adopting that? Probably not. But the citizens could do it."

Danon admits that the process to independence in San Diego has a long way to go. For now, the plan is to simply explore the feasibility, with a report to come in 120 days.

And while San Diego County's own board of supervisors has taken the extremely rare decision to consider turning over its own redistricting power, the more likely scenario for other California counties is for citizens to ask for a county charter change via a ballot initiative. That would take a number of signatures.

"If in this political environment, I initiated a public initiative and got the signatures, I know for a fact it would qualify," Danon said. "They would have to put it on the ballot and I know in this political climate it would pass."

For now, Danon will accept the board's proposal; even though it's not a citizen's commission, which Cox said would never pass, Danon said.

"I said, 'Even if you lose, you win, because you're on the side of the angels.'"

Getting media support was the key, Danon said.

"If there is a groundswell of support and if the L.A. media market picks it up, I think one of the five supervisors might support it, or a citizens initiative," he said.

L.A. redistricting experts are split on the idea of an independent commission, primarily whether it is locally feasible.

"It happened in the State and the outcome was reasonable," said Leo Estrada, a redistricting expert and professor at UCLA. "If this current situation gets nasty, there may be enough disgust with the current system for an independent commission to come into being."

In 2008, California Proposition 11 passed, placing the power to draw electoral boundaries for the State Assembly and State Senate in the hands of a Citizens Redistricting Commission. In 2010, Proposition 20 extended it to U.S. House seats.

On the more local level, one huge key is whether county officials are "termed out" of office; effectively killing the largest conflict of interest when drawing lines: keeping one's own job.

In San Diego County, all five supervisors have to step down before the next round of redistricting (2021) because of a term-limits law approved in 2010; similar to the one LA County has in effect. It's one of the primary reasons there's a proposal for change, Danon said.

While Estrada believes an independent commission may be possible, other experts, like Alan Clayton, are skeptical a ballot initiative could pass in the face of an inevitable campaign against it by the powerful L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Danon disagrees.

"If the balloting was extremely clear, simple and concise, and there's a calling for an independent commission to bring transparency, I find it hard to believe it wouldn't pass."

For now, L.A. County simply waits to see if a lawsuit will come.

"San Diego's model might be a little different than L.A.'s model," Danon said. "So, LA needs to figure it out itself. But I think there would be more of a public outcry if L.A. has its head in its hands and says, 'We'll just keep the status quo because legally we can't change things.'"

Daniel Watson is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

The photo on this post is by Flickr user http2007. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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