What a Mess

City Council makeover falls flat

By R.E. Graswich
February 2022

Next time, let’s leave the politics to the professionals. Amateur interference just creates a mess. At least with pros, outcomes are transparently based on self-preservation, greed and vengeance.

The latest example of mud pies created by amateurs at City Hall involves the redesign of City Council districts. This exercise commences around the turn of every decade, in alignment with census upheavals.

Officially, the process is called “redistricting,” but that’s a word I’ve sworn never to write or speak. It’s deadly for anyone trying to hold an audience.

Readers—especially me—freeze at a headline containing that word. It’s no accident our better writers, Shakespeare to Didion, never mentioned it.

Sacramento recently finished its first formal attempt at giving amateurs the crayons to draw council lines. The result is what you would expect—preschoolers scribbling away on a doctoral thesis.

The amateurs corrupted democracy by rearranging political representation and alliances in multiple communities. They shoved a popular councilmember, Jeff Harris, into a vortex by severing his district from his home. Oops!

Coincidentally, Harris is Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s biggest pain on City Council. Harris questions the mayor and even dares to disagree with him.

The council mapmakers were supposed to ignore politics. They were asked to cut and paste on behalf of all city residents. But the result suggests they had Harris in their sights.

None of this needed to happen. Since 1971, when the city divided into eight council districts, councilmembers drew their own lines. They took the job seriously and honored various principles, such as protecting ethnic neighborhoods and ensuring each district had similar numbers of people.

Critics roll out clichés about gerrymandering and politicians choosing their own voters. But in Sacramento, the system worked for five decades. There was just one significant mess in all those years. And there was a good reason for it.

Eager to create an African American district in Meadowview, the City Council in 1991 separated Pocket and Greenhaven from Meadowview and Valley Hi. Lynn Robie, the Pocket’s councilwoman, was cut out of her district, just like Jeff Harris.

The council saved Valley Hi Councilmember Terry Kastanis with a slender peninsula that connected his home near Cosumnes River College to Pocket. Kastanis survived a recall attempt by Pocket residents in 1992.

The Kastanis peninsula endured for 30 years, long after everyone forgot why it happened. But the new map obliterates South Sac’s African American power base. Black voters are now a distinct minority in all eight districts.

The City Council really lost its mind in 2016, when it decided to create an independent commission to draw lines for 2021 and beyond. The idea went on the ballot and won by a landslide.

Why would the council throw away the right to create its own boundaries? The answer lies with the character of modern politicians. They like to let citizen commissions do the dirty work. Commissions present handy alibis, tools to deflect criticism when the going gets tough. Commissions are fall guys.

Now a commission has fallen on Jeff Harris and voters in East Sac, Land Park, Curtis Park and Meadowview.

It wasn’t easy for the amateur commissioners to break up Harris’ District 3. They had to think about what they were doing. To make Harris disappear, the commission trashed electoral preferences in communities filled with active, perceptive voters.

Land Park lost its councilmember, Katie Valenzuela, who now serves East Sac until 2024, despite never being elected there. Rick Jennings, Pocket’s all-star, will have to win in his home district, plus Land Park and Curtis Park, to keep his job this year.

Harris suffered the supreme indignity. To stay on City Council, he needs a new address in South Natomas. No Kastanis-style peninsula can save him. Great news for Steinberg.

Maybe the commission blundered honestly into its final map. Maybe the disappearance of the mayor’s chief critic was pure coincidence. You never know with amateurs.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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