After Saturday’s meeting of the San Diego Redistricting Commission, several members of the public who observed the proceeding shared concerns over how the commission’s discussion of new City Council district boundaries is being driven by boundary lines for the city’s land use planning areas. Planning areas have become such a factor in these discussions that the commission’s mapping consultant has begun drafting council district maps overlaid with planning area maps. Such an overwhelming focus on planning areas is a dangerous mistake.

Land-use planning area boundaries may be one of many considerations in redistricting, and land use is an important part of what the City Council does. Community planning groups perform an essential function, and as a former planning committee member, I have nothing but appreciation and respect for the volunteers who spend endless hours serving on these boards. However, planning area boundaries should not be the driving force in drawing council districts.

The City Council has many other functions that do not revolve around land use planning area boundaries. They include public safety, general city services, economic development, responding to diverse demographic groups and so forth. When voters think about representation on the City Council, they often consider whether their neighborhood is safe, whether the streets are paved, whether businesses are surviving, and whether their councilmember can relate to them.

Alarmingly, the Redistricting Commission is focusing on the geography of planning areas at the expense of more important considerations. Chief among them is the geography of San Diego’s racial and ethnic minorities, which the commission is specifically required to consider under the city charter and its own bylaws. The charter and bylaws say nothing about land use planning areas.

The driving force behind the focus on land use planning areas is Commissioner Dave Potter (with whom I served on a city task force and for whom I have tremendous respect). His frame of reference is understandable: Commissioner Potter’s career has centered on land use planning, first as a city planner and now as a private land use consultant. It is no surprise that he views city council districts through the lens of land use planning area boundaries. However, most people don’t, and neither does the city charter.

Unlike the city charter criteria for redistricting, the criterion for drawing community planning areas was simply to unite contiguous neighborhoods into small, manageable planning areas. The elements of city council redistricting are far more complicated and important. For example, Article II, Section 5.1 of the charter requires that each redistricting plan “provide fair and effective representation for all citizens of the city, including racial, ethnic, and language minorities.” The charter also requires compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. In redistricting, all other community of interest advocacy is secondary to the issue of not dividing communities of color in ways which would have the effect of diminishing their opportunities for representation. Nothing in the formation process for community planning areas addresses these issues.

Community planning groups play no role in the election process, and in fact, they go out of their way not to be involved. They are an instrument of governance, not electoral politics. Using community planning area boundaries to do redistricting is like using kitchen utensils to do your plumbing. It’s the wrong tool for the job, and it practically guarantees that the map will violate the city charter or the federal Voting Rights Act.

Stephen Whitburn is a former vice chair of the North Park Planning Committee and was a candidate for City Council in 2008.

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