In 2020, the city of Marina held its first district-based elections, rather than its old system of at-large City Council seats. Cristina Medina Dirksen, who ran for the first time (and won) found herself puzzled as she campaigned.
“My district is not walkable. It encompasses two different sides of town,” she says.
District 3 goes from Walmart on the city’s northern edge all the way to new developments, The Dunes and Sea Haven. “Aside from very general things – public safety and affordable housing – I don’t think [parts of] my district currently have much in common with each other,” Medina Dirksen adds.
The lines were drawn in a hurry, after the city in 2019 received a letter from Santa Barbara attorney H. Frederick Seigenfeld threatening to sue Marina under the California Voting Rights Act.
The logic of Seigenfeld’s legal threat and the underlying Voting Rights Act premise is to enable a more diverse slate of electeds. He determined that since 1994 – over 13 election cycles – Marina had just five minority candidates elected to council. The city is the eighth most diverse in California, and its current City Council – the first one elected using district elections – is more diverse than the one prior. (In District 2, two Asian-Americans ran against each other; Kathy Biala won.)
Beyond racial diversity, the districts are also meant to preserve “communities of interest,” groups of people who share similar social and financial circumstances. The idea of connecting them in a voting district is so that they can gain fair representation.
In the 2019 redistricting process, The Dunes was split into two districts, and currently has no representative from the neighborhood on council.
This time Biala hopes they are “going to have more geographic integrity,” she says. “I’m hoping that my district will be much more concentrated and more representative of the places where I go and the neighbors that I have.”
One issue the first time around, councilmembers say, was councilmembers protecting their own ability to be re-elected without running against each other. This time around, City Council discussed creating a commission to oversee the process, but opted out.
“I’m disappointed there is no citizen-led commission and the council didn’t even really consider going down that path,” says resident Brian McCarthy, who believes having one would make the process more transparent.
There’s also the matter of public engagement. “[In 2019] we had to come into compliance within 90 days,” Medina Dirksen notes. That led to what she describes as a rushed process lacking public participation.
Trying to correct for a hurried process in 2019, city officials have held workshops and public hearings since July reaching out in different languages (English, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese) seeking residents’ input and teaching them about mapping tools and how to draw maps that include fair representation.
As of Dec. 21, 48 map proposals were received, but about half do not create districts of equal population. Those proposals will be reviewed in a hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 4. The deadline to submit a map is Feb. 1. The deadline for adoption is April 17; new districts will be in effect for the November 2022 elections.
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