VVC by-district voting system adoption a challenge

VICTORVILLE — As Victor Valley College prepares for a likely change in the way voters elect its board, trustees are pressing for more time to study options and are urging voters to weigh in.

During an open study session at its Nov. 14 regular meeting, the board reviewed for the first time a package of proposed maps that would move the Victor Valley Community College District from an at-large voting system to by-district where trustees are elected in redistricted areas.

The meeting also served as the third of four public hearings on the seemingly inevitable shift to the new system, a proposal trustees approved to move forward in considering on a 4-1 vote in August.

College officials say the move is a necessary one to avoid lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act similar to ones brought against other voting districts challenging fairness in minority representation in racially diverse communities.

But the process seemed to get murky at the November meeting as Board President Brandon Wood, Vice President Marianne Tortorici and trustees Dennis Henderson, John Pinkerton and Joseph W. Brady raised questions about the speed of implementation, data used to construct the maps and communication to voters.

Paul Mitchell of Sacramento-based Redistricting Partners LLC during the study session presented four proposed redistricting map options. They included two based on city boundaries, one on area school district lines and one on highways.

As it stands now, the college plans to publicly post the proposed maps on Dec. 5 and trustees would be eligible to vote as early as Dec. 12 on adopting one of those maps for its future elections.

Brady told the Daily Press the relatively quick turnaround presents trouble in reaching and educating as much of the voter-base as possible.

“I don’t think voters in the High Desert fully understand how redistricting impacts them,” Brady said.

He proposed the board increase communication efforts with “every possible” local media outlet to cover more ground, including billboard advertising along Interstate 15 to reach the large percentage of local residents who commute for work.

“We owe it to the voters, we owe it to our students, our employees and partners,” Brady said during the Nov. 14 meeting. “We owe it to everybody to really do a max blitz on this and really blitz it hard so nobody can ever say they didn’t know about it.”

Seven-year-old Census data

Part of the contention for trustees and at least two local residents who spoke during the public forum portion of the meeting is the technical details that went into creating the maps.

The maps were drawn based on official 2010 U.S. Census data, the most recent data legal to use in a redistricting process, Mitchell told trustees. While parts of proposed districts may have seen sizable changes in population density and socioeconomic diversity over the last seven years, Mitchell said the maps can only reflect what was reported in 2010.

Local resident Margaret Kagy raised her concerns with the use of that available data.

“If you’re dealing with 7-year-old data, that’s like buying old bread and expecting it to be good for the day you’re using it,” Kagy said. “Why are we not waiting until the 2020 Census?”

Christina M. Cameron, an attorney with the college’s general counsel, responded later in the meeting that there is an urgency to complete the process based on precedents set in other cases.

“If you don’t make certain deadlines, if you’ve been challenged under the California Voting Rights Act (and) don’t meet the time frame under safe harbor provisions, just getting sued and immediately settling has cost jurisdictions around $100,000,” Cameron said.

Hesperia resident and local business owner Eric Schmidt pointed to district lines drawn on the proposed map options as evidence that the new system won’t properly represent each district’s population.

“There are logical boundaries that are not defined by a census map,” Schmidt said.

Mitchell warned against straying from Census data in outlining the voting districts.

“Jurisdictions have gotten in trouble for drawing lines where the only justification was because a new population was there,” Mitchell said. “The redistricting case law is not necessarily based on common sense. … We have to act as if (today is) April 1, 2010 (to create the maps).”

“There’s no problem here”

The debate over details within the proposals seemed to be muted as the meeting’s discussion shifted to one of echoed displeasure with the need to change to the new system.

Brady calls adopting the new system a solution to a “problem we don’t have.”

“We’ve had a great balance with diversity of leaders — never an issue with ethnicity and race on our board,” Brady told the Daily Press by phone. “We’ve never had one person come to our college and complain about the election process. There’s no problem here.”

Pinkerton, a Pinon Hills resident who works in Victorville, said his voting base will alter drastically under any of the four proposed district maps presented to the board on Nov. 14.

“All those people I built relationships with for all these years (as a candidate and trustee), they won’t get a chance to vote for me because I happen to live in Pinon Hills,” Pinkerton said. “I think we get the best when we have to run (for election) all throughout the district and have to work with one another.”

Wood believes the change will create division among future trustees and further separate the mission of the board’s purpose in serving the college.

“All this does is divide communities,” Wood said. “(Under the current system) I don’t represent Hesperia or Apple Valley or Pinon Hills. I’m here because everybody elected me to be here.”

Meanwhile, Tortortici offered a differing point of view, playing “Devil’s Advocate” as she called it. She believes the shift has the potential to unite.

“(For a trustee residing in Pinon Hills) You do live out there, you would know whether or not we’re meeting the needs of the people out there,” Tortortici said. “That’s the way I’ve seen school districts (that utilize by-district elections) work as a team, to remind us what’s in District 1 or 2 or 3, because they do differ. I’d hate to present that 100 percent of this concept is negative.”

The next steps

Beyond the Nov. 14 meeting, VVC spokesperson Robert Sewell says “the most challenging component” still lies ahead as the board needs to further study the geographic boundaries and select one of the proposed scenarios.

And while college Superintendent/President Roger Wagner doesn’t believe the change will have any immediate impact on students or faculty, he says the result of the Nov. 14 meeting is clear.

“More time needs to be dedicated to this critically important decision,” Wagner said. “We will be looking to bring back new maps that will allow the board to see in more detail exactly where potential boundary lines may be drawn.”

Sewell tells the Daily Press college officials are “working to identify a date for a special meeting with the sole agenda item being redistricting.

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