San Rafael City Council did its job on districts

POSTED: 4/8/18

Publication: Marin Independent Journal: Editorial

The San Rafael City Council approved a map with four districts to be used for council elections starting in 2020.(Courtesy City of San Rafael)


The San Rafael City Council made the right move, voting not to split up the Canal area into parts of two council districts.

The council last week, in voting to establish the lines for four council districts, agreed to maintain as part of one district the area along the south side of the San Rafael Canal, east of Grand Avenue and extending to the Richmond bridge.

The area is geographically cohesive and residents and businesses in the area share many issues, problems, programs and public services.

Those in favor of splitting the area argued that keeping them together would make it harder for the Latino community, which makes up most of the population in the apartment-dominated center of the Canal, to elect a Latino candidate. They wanted Spinnaker and Baypoint, two single-family neighborhoods, included in the “East” district, which takes in Glenwood, Loch Lomond, Peacock Gap and other neighborhoods stretching along Point San Pedro Road and on the north side of the canal.

But splitting the areas would have just increased the political divisiveness over parking that already exists.

The city has moved from its tradition of at-large elections to creating four districts in response to a lawsuit that argued that San Rafael’s city-wide vote violated the state voters’ right law that was designed to remove political obstacles facing minority communities in electing representatives.

The council’s vote was 4-1, with Councilwoman Kate Colin voting to separate the areas into two districts.

She sided with Canal activists who are concerned that adding Spinnaker and Baypoint would dilute the political clout of the rest of the district.

The districts are based on population, each having about 14,500 residents. But not every resident is a registered voter and registration and voting among residents of the center Canal area has been notoriously low.

But being a large part of a district should make it more attractive for candidates to run, as the districts should significantly reduce the cost of running and the need to conduct city-wide campaigns.

Advocates for electing a Latino to a San Rafael council seat need to find solid candidates, register residents to vote and make sure they cast their ballots.

As Councilman Andrew McCullough said at the meeting, the council’s job was not to choose the best configuration for getting a Latino candidate elected, but to create a situation that would improve their opportunity to participate.

“It is not our responsibility to engineer the optimal outcome for Latino voters,” he said, adding the council’s job is to draw “fair” districts that also reflect cohesive areas and natural geographic boundaries.

Drawing the lines for predetermined political outcomes is political gerrymandering, which can discourage rather than engage civic participation.

The lines aren’t perfect. For instance, instead of using Puerto Suello Hill as a natural divider, the district that includes most of the Point San Pedro Peninsula reaches north to include the Civic Center and some neighborhoods on both sides of Highway 101. But sometimes achieving population balances — not politics — requires such reaches.

The districts will get their first test in the 2020 council elections. In addition, they soon will have to be re-evaluated and possibly redrawn as new federal census numbers are generated.

The council has done its job. Now it is up to voters. And in the Canal area district, for those who want to elect a Latino council member, it’s time to find good candidates, register voters and reach out to all parts of the district to get him or her elected.

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