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For weeks, San Diego’s Redistricting Commission has been looking for help. The influential board is charged with using Census data and public input to redraw the boundaries of San Diego’s City Council districts. But it needs someone to do the heavy lifting, to take all that input and the dense population numbers and actually draw the maps it will then consider.

So in March, it asked for proposals from private firms that specialize in that work. It received four bids. But on April 21, it dismissed them all, saying not one had met a critical requirement: Including an online tool the public could use to draw and submit their own maps for the commission to consider.

The commission decided to instead seek a contract with another firm — the city-controlled agency that provides San Diego’s IT services — even though it doesn’t meet another one of the commission’s requirements: having redistricting experience.

It is unclear why the commission dismissed four firms that it said didn’t meet its requirements in favor of yet another one that also didn’t. But the recommendation, which could be approved Thursday, has attracted attention.

City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf has asked City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to examine any potential conflicts that may arise from allowing the fifth firm, the San Diego Data Processing Corp., to perform that role.

The city is preparing to put $40 million in IT services out for competitive bid. Whether the Data Processing Corp. gets that business, Zapf noted in a memo, will be up to the City Council — the same one whose boundaries it could draw.

One of the spurned firms has also raised questions about the decision, saying the commission shouldn’t have rejected it. Doug Johnson, president of the Los Angeles-based National Demographics Corp., said his company’s bid did include the online outreach tool. (Disclosure: Johnson is a fellow with the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, which partnered with voiceofsandiego.org on this investigation.)

Johnson sent the commission’s chairwoman a letter saying it had “been significantly misled on the facts by whomever conducted the review.”

That person was Ani Mdivani-Morrow, the commissioner who headed a three-member committee charged with finding the mapping consultant.

At an April 21 commission meeting, Mdivani-Morrow said all the proposals had failed to meet the online software requirement, prompting her committee to dismiss them.

She said a proposal had instead been arranged with the city-controlled Data Processing Corp. to provide that service using a special mapping software.

But a copy of the bid submitted by National Demographics Corp., which Johnson provided, shows that his firm’s bid included the use of the very same software to allow the public to participate in the redistricting process.

The firm’s bid for the contract, worth up to $90,000, also included a list of the previous redistricting projects it has completed for cities, water districts and school boards across the state. The commission’s request for bids required applicants to have completed at least three redistricting projects.

The Data Processing Corp. has never completed a redistricting project, said Lori Jo Zehner, a manager at the agency. But she said it did have an employee with extensive experience in mapping software who had worked on redistricting contracts in Sacramento.

The role of the Redistricting Commission’s technical consultant is important and powerful. The process of redrawing City Council boundaries is supposed to be nonpartisan and apolitical, but its outcome has highly political implications. Political wrangling has already started among liberal and conservative groups seeking to influence the process.

The commission’s internal decision-making process is still unclear. So is why it got the Data Processing Corp. involved. The commissioners who sorted through the bids do not speak to reporters. Anisha Dalal, the commission’s chairwoman, is the only member that the group’s bylaws allow to speak publicly.

Dalal said a three-member subcommittee, including Mdivani-Morrow, Theresa Quiroz and Frederick Kosmo, had sorted through the bids and recommended that they all be disqualified.

“That was under their purview,” she said. “They bring their recommendation to the full commission based on the process they went through.”

Commissioners will discuss the contracting question at the commission’s Thursday meeting. It will then consider approving a contract with the Data Processing Corp. to draw the district maps the commission will vote on later this summer.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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