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San Diego Redistricting Commissioner Mitz Lee resigned last week after she was accused of improperly influencing the redistricting process.
Lee has been accused of pushing a community organization to support a certain map of District 6, which has a large Asian and Pacific Islander community, that differed from what many community members in the area have been advocating for – adding UCSD and some of its neighboring communities into District 6. Lee’s resignation now leaves District 6 without representation on the city’s redistricting commission.
In her resignation e-mail to Commission Chair Thomas Hebrank last week, Lee said she was stepping down to ensure the Asian Pacific American Coalition, an organization she co-founded years ago, maintained its credibility during the 2021 redistricting process.
“It is extremely hard for me as a member of the commission to balance the responsibility and obligation to the city of San Diego and the organization that I strongly believe in its mission,” Lee wrote in her resignation e-mail on Oct. 9. “I will focus on guiding and protecting APAC from undue influence of others during this once every 10 years process of redrawing the lines of the city and the voice of Asian Americans are heard fairly.”
Lee also sent an e-mail to members of Mayor Todd Gloria’s Asian Pacific Islander Advisory Group notifying them of her resignation.
In that e-mail, she said it had come to her attention that a complaint was filed with the city attorney’s office that included “allegations of unethical and potentially illegal conduct by me on the commission implicating others and my involvement with APAC affairs.”
Lee’s name is no longer listed as a commissioner on the city’s Redistricting Commission website.
“To step down from the commission is the right course of action while I reserve my right to legal options later,” Lee wrote in an e-mail to Voice of San Diego. “I took these unfounded allegations very seriously but what matters most at this time is not jeopardizing the important work of the Redistricting Commission and letting them finish the work without disruptions. The timeline is short.”
One of the complaints against Lee was from Sara Kamiab, who served on the APAC board of directors between January 2020 and Aug. 16, 2021.
In the complaint, Kamiab alleges Lee tried to push APAC to pursue a specific map for District 6 that did not include UCSD and its neighboring communities, which have a high AAPI population.
“I respectfully wish to alert you to what I believe is unethical and potentially illegal conduct by Redistricting Commissioner Mitz Lee, in the interest of protecting the fairness and integrity of the redistricting process,” Kamiab wrote to the city attorney’s office in an e-mail in early October.
Kamiab wrote that in July, Lee stepped down as chair of APAC, but remained on the board of directors, “citing potential conflicts of serving on the Redistricting Commission while still acting as Chair.”
“Our understanding at the time was that Mitz stepped down due to potential conflict of interest, as she was prohibited from engaging in lobbying on redistricting matters while serving on the commission,” Kamiab wrote.
Kamiab was also elected the new chair of APAC and there was an understanding that the organization would be working to ensure there is a minimum of 36 percent and goal of 51 percent AAPI population in District 6 in this round of redistricting.
In August, Kamiab said she met with Lee to discuss the transition, where Lee “produced all past APAC efforts on redistricting and emphasized the importance of ‘finishing what APAC started in 2010.’ This meant specifically having all of Ranchos Penasquitos drawn into the district, regardless of what percentage of AAPI representation would be if that were to happen.”
Kamiab said that she and other APAC members agreed to support a map that increased AAPI representation in District 6 to 40 percent by adding UC San Diego and Carmel Valley to the district. She and another APAC member participated in the District 1 redistricting public hearing on Aug. 11 to advocate for a map that included UCSD and Carmel Valley being moved to District 6.
Days later, Kamiab said she was asked to attend a special APAC Board meeting to be held on short notice.
“I believed this was to discuss next steps on our redistricting efforts,” Kamiab wrote. “Instead I was surprised to find….that Mitz had already spoken privately with most of the board members except myself, about our position on redistricting.”
Kamiab was accused of having a conflict of interest with APAC because she had worked with other AAPI organizations on redistricting, she said. Kamiab was then asked to leave while the rest of the board discussed the matter and was then informed she was voted off the board.
“It was made clear to me that this change in tone was due entirely to the fact that Mitz disagreed with the map we had proposed and was insisting that APAC pursue a different map that excluded the AAPI student population and included parts of the city that she had wanted in the district from back in 2010.”
After the meeting, Kamiab said APAC officially changed its position on the maps.
Effectively, Kamiab in her complaint alleged that the organization began supporting a different AAPI map that did not include UCSD in District 6 because of Lee’s influence.
“I believe redistricting is critical for our democracy, especially for marginalized groups like the AAPI community,” Kamiab wrote in the complaint. “It is critical that the public have faith that Commissioners are operating in an open and transparent manner, and not attempting to draw specific districts outside of public view and against the wishes of the communities they represent. The fact that these secret efforts are specifically intended to undermine the voices of a vulnerable population makes the conduct even more troublesome.”
Lee called the allegations against her and APAC “atrocious.”
In her e-mail to the mayor’s API Advisory Group, she noted that APAC has compelling evidence to prove an ongoing conflict of interest involving Kamiab that led to her dismissal from the APAC Board of Directors, rather than Kamiab being dismissed for supporting the proposed District 6 map that included UCSD and Carmel Valley.
When the city attorney’s office forwarded Kamiab’s complaint to the redistricting commission’s chief of staff, they indicated that there was another e-mail from UCSD students about Lee.
“I assume you will be forwarding this and the other email from UCSD students to Chair Hebrank and Vice Chair [Ken] Malbrough?” wrote Deputy City Attorney Kathy Steinman in the e-mail. “I will be forwarding this to my supervisors as well for further direction.”
Aidan Lin, the associate vice president of local affairs for the Associated Students of UC San Diego, said the “overwhelming majority” of public comments during redistricting hearings focused on District 1, where UCSD currently is, and District 6 “supported the inclusion of the UCSD community with the AAPI community in District 6” in an e-mail to VOSD.
Lin said presentations at redistricting commission meetings – including one at a meeting Tuesday – that advocate for maps that leave UCSD students out of District 6 “by Mitz Lee’s APAC made it clear that there has been a concerted effort by political insiders to silence and marginalize our voices.”
“It was appropriate for Ms. Lee to step down to protect the integrity of the Redistricting Commission,” Lin wrote. “We will continue to work in partnership with the AAPI community for fair and equitable districts, and demand transparency throughout the rest of the process.”
Kristen G. Roberts, who is from District 2 and was chosen as one of two alternates when the original commissioners were initially selected, was sworn in Monday to replace Lee. However, Lee’s resignation means that there is no one from District 6 on the commission.
Roberts is Japanese, Jamaican, Mexican and Swedish, said Lora Fleming, chief of staff of the city’s Redistricting Commission.
Correction: A previous version of this story said there would be no representation of the AAPI community in the city’s Redistricting Commission with Mitz Lee’s resignation. Kristen G. Roberts, who is replacing Lee, is Japanese, Jamaican, Mexican and Swedish.