A photo of Palm Desert City Hall. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

The Palm Desert City Council last week directed city staff to look into the legal feasibility of holding off on dividing the city into five single-member city council districts until a certain amount of projected growth happens in the northern part of the city.

“In asking for feedback, I’m asking to learn whether this path would be a clearly legal one such that we would be done with legal disputes,” Mayor Kathleen Kelly said at the May 25 meeting. “And we have a majority seeking that feedback before further discussion.”

Kelly made the suggestion — supported by council members Gina Nestande, Jan Harnik and Evan Trubee — after more than an hour of discussion on the issue that included public comment from 13 speakers, nine of whom spoke in favor of immediately starting the districting process.

“District representation ensures that each neighborhood and community within the city has a dedicated representative who understands their unique needs and concerns,” Lauren Wolfer, a Palm Desert resident, said. “This system allows for closer engagement with local officials and leads to the development of targeted policies that address specific issues impacting each district.”

Along with public comment, the council received written correspondence from 30 additional Palm Desert residents, 25 of whom wrote in favor of creating five single-member districts.

Mayor Pro Tem Karina Quintanilla spoke out against the mayor’s suggestion, stating that the voters of Palm Desert had already spoken on the issue by passing Advisory Measure B last November.

“I think that today’s meeting was to request direction on how to move forward, and I think it’s counterproductive to say our direction is to delay it again,” she said. “We’ve asked the voters, it was an advisory measure, they responded. We owe them action.”

The discussion of districting in Palm Desert goes back to September 2017, when the city received a letter alleging that its at-large city council electoral system violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by disenfranchising the city’s Latino voters. The city, disagreeing with the allegation, did not respond to the letter and took no action.

A timeline of the districting conversation in Palm Desert. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

Two years later, Quintanilla and Lorraine Salas filed suit against the city alleging a violation of the CVRA due to the city’s continued use of its at-large electoral system. That suit was settled in December 2019, a choice the city made “due to the low threshold of proof required by the CVRA, the unanimously unsuccessful efforts by California cities to defend against such lawsuits to date, and the considerable cost of defending such lawsuits,” according to a staff report on the issue.

As part of that settlement, the city adopted a two-district electoral system and established ranked choice voting. The city currently has two districts: District 1, which comprises roughly 20% of the city’s population, elects one council member; and District 2, composed of the other roughly 80% of the city’s population, elects the remaining four council members.

The settlement also stated that the city was prohibited from conducting at-large voting for the 10 years following the settlement, though it did not preclude the city from adopting a five single-member district electoral system.

Last November, to gauge public support for a five-district electoral system, the city council put a non-binding advisory measure on the ballot asking voters whether the city should divide District 2 into four smaller single-member districts for a total of five electoral districts. That measure, Advisory Measure B, passed with 53.24% of the vote.

In response to the vote, the council appointed Quintanilla and Harnik to an ad hoc subcommittee to assess the effects of Measure B and recommend options to the council. Earlier this year, the subcommittee directed staff to prepare a report for the council on three potential districting options.

“These options included three single-member districts with two members elected at-large, four single-member districts with an at-large mayor, and five single-member districts,” Anthony Mejia, city clerk, said at the meeting. “I’d like to note that three districts with two members elected at-large is not a legally viable option in California, so it won’t be discussed further.”

Of the two remaining options, Mejia said the implementation of four single-member districts with an at-large mayor would likely result in the Latino citizen voting age population of District 1 dropping from 44% to 40%, while the implementation of five single-member districts could allow District 1 to remain unchanged.

“The demographer’s preliminary best efforts could not identify in four plus one configuration that did not result in diluting Latino [citizen voting age population] in District 1, therefore, this option doesn’t appear to be in furtherance of the California Voting Rights Act,” Mejia said. “A five district option appears to be consistent with the stipulated judgment, Advisory Measure B and applicable law.”

There were also questions of whether the city could redistrict mid-cycle under the Fair Maps Act without risk of a legal challenge, the cost of continued negotiations to potentially alter the 2019 settlement and whether the city wanted to continue with ranked choice voting, something Nestande called a “threat to our democracy.”

Trubee, who shared Nestande’s concerns about ranked choice voting, also said going to five districts could lead to diminished representation and voter choice.

“There’s a lot of downside to this,” he said. “I’m opposed to it, and I made that clear in my campaign, of moving to five districts.”

Both Kelly and Harnick questioned whether it would make more sense to hold off on districting until a certain amount of the planned new residential units in the northern part of the city, some of which are currently under construction, are occupied.

“In the foreseeable future, the north part of our city is going to gain close to 10,000 residents,” Kelly said. “If we established five districts today, and each of those districts had close to 10,000 people, the probability is that less than halfway from here to the 2030 census, the district in the north would end up with twice the population of all the other districts.”

Quintanilla, while acknowledging the concerns presented by the rest of the council, said those issues were not enough of a reason to delay implementing the will of the voters and start the process of districting.

“By refusing to adopt districts, this council is reflecting the antiquated ideas of the mid-18th century, instead of acknowledging the rights of people needing to vote by district in the 21st century,” she said.

Ultimately, the council gave direction to staff to come back at the next regularly scheduled meeting with updated information about Kelly’s proposal.

“Let’s do it right,” Harnik said. “Let’s take our time, and let’s get all the information we can to make sure we make the best decision for everyone.”

If council decides to move forward with districting, Mejia said it would need to provide staff with that direction by next month so the city could begin its voter outreach this fall and final map adoption could happen in January 2024.

The council is scheduled to discuss the issue at Thursday’s meeting.

You can view a recording of the May 25 meeting here.

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.