Riverside County supervisors approve redistricting proposal; lawmakers call map 'legally indefensible'

Supervisors listen as public comment takes place at a Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting regarding plans to reopen the county during the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, October 6, 2020, in Riverside, Calif.
Supervisors listen as public comment takes place at a Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting regarding plans to reopen the county during the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, October 6, 2020, in Riverside, Calif.

A trio of Riverside County lawmakers say the redistricting proposal approved by the county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is “legally indefensible,” echoing concerns raised by advocacy groups, community members and the Coachella Valley’s elected supervisor who say the adopted map is out of compliance with federal voting law.

With one week left before the new map’s deadline for approval, the county supervisors — who are tasked with approving new boundaries every 10 years in response to the latest U.S. Census — advanced one of three redistricting proposals up for consideration Tuesday on a 4-1 vote, with only Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez opposed.

The map, which aims to account for the county’s 10.4% population growth over the past decade, will bring substantial changes to the county’s western districts, unifying the city of Riverside within one district alongside Perris and Mead Valley, while splitting part of Jurupa Valley into a district that spans the county’s western border.

More: UCLA report: Riverside County must create two Latino-majority districts through redistricting to avoid lawsuit

More: Will Riverside County get sued over its redistricting process? Supervisor Perez thinks so

The new map will have less impact on the Coachella Valley’s supervisorial district, which will continue to span across eastern and central Riverside County while expanding into the nearby Idyllwild-Pine Cove, Mountain Center and Whitewater areas.

Throughout the redistricting process, which began in late summer after the release of census data was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, supervisors warned members of the public that not everyone could be happy with the final map, due to such a wide variety of local interests among the county's roughly 2.4 million residents.

Yet much of the criticism of the adopted map ultimately hinged on arguments that the district boundaries didn't change enough to reflect the rapidly shifting demographics of Riverside County, where the Latino population has grown by 20.8% over the past decade, according to census data.

Several residents push for ACLU-backed map

The five-member board heard roughly two hours of testimony on Tuesday from more than 40 county residents, many of whom spoke on the proposals’ impacts on various pockets of the county, including Temescal Valley, the city of Riverside and the Lake Mathews area.

Beyond those local issues, the most frequent point raised during the meeting was regarding the county’s compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits any voting practices that could dilute a particular racial group’s electoral power.

Many who testified urged the supervisors to adopt the only map up for consideration that would establish two Latino-majority districts, with the latest census data showing Latino residents now account for 49.7% of the county's total population and about two-fifths of its voting-age population.

Several residents of Riverside County spoke in favor of the map as members of TODEC Legal Center, a community organization that works with immigrant communities. Luz Gallegos, TODEC’s executive director, said her group’s preferred map, known as Community Map 1.4, would keep her members’ communities together and avoid suppression of their political power.

Gallegos also pushed back on an assertion made by Riverside County staff that all three of the final proposals comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

In recent meetings, county counsel has pointed to an “opportunity to elect” district for Latino residents in its redrawn versions of District 4, currently represented by Perez, the first Latino to serve on the board. But Perez initially gained his seat through an appointment in 2017 after the death of John Benoit, only to win a race for his seat the next year — a point raised by Gallegos.

“We cannot wait for another appointment of a supervisor how we had with Supervisor Manuel Perez,” Gallegos said. “We cannot rely on future appointments to have an opportunity to have a representative that really reflects their (constituents’) needs and what they believe in.”

Others, such as Maribel Nunez of the county's Brown and Black Redistricting Alliance, offered similar support and noted a report released last week by the UCLA Voting Rights Project, which found the county could be at risk of legal action if the board does not create two Latino-majority districts.

“Its number one (priority in redistricting is) equal population,” Nunez said. “Number two is the Voting Rights Act. That's number two, and everything else is secondary, so please, I don't want to get sued in our county.”

The day before the board meeting, the supervisors also received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California urging them to adopt Community Map 1.4 — the third letter sent by the ACLU since the county began its redistricting process.

“To avoid diluting the strength of Latino voters and violating the Voting Rights Act, the Board must adopt a map with at least two (Latino citizen voting age population)-majority districts — roughly proportional to Latino voters’ respective shares of (the citizen voting age population) in the County,” the letter states. “Map 1.4 is the only map under consideration that does this.”

In early October, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also sent its own letter to the county raising concerns about the process.

Perez: ‘Only map’ that doesn’t present risk of lawsuit is ACLU-backed proposal

Although the board ultimately opted for another redistricting proposal, its vote came after substantial discussion among the five supervisors about how they should proceed.

Perez, the first Latino to serve on the board, offered his support for the ACLU-backed map that would create two Latino-majority districts.

“I think the only map that allows for equal numbers in population, that allows for compliance with the Voting Rights Act, that allows for an effective opportunity to elect preferred candidates, that does not crack or dilute the Latino vote and … that does not present a risk of a potential lawsuit from specifically ACLU or MALDEF is Map 1.4,” Perez said. “And so, I support Map 1.4.”

Perez also appeared to back the ACLU’s analysis of the proposals’ “opportunity to elect” districts, noting he endured a “shellacking” when he unsuccessfully ran for District 4 supervisor in 2014, prior to his appointment to the board.

“Quite frankly, I do believe that the one reason why I am here is not only because I won my race, but I also feel because I was appointed by the governor, or else I wouldn't have the power of incumbency,” Perez said.

There is recent precedent for a California county getting sued over its redistricting process. In 2018, MALDEF reach a court agreement with Kern County, in the Central Valley, to redraw its 2011 maps to create a second Latino-majority district.

Perez alluded to the possibility of maps being drawn by a third party after a lawsuit, stating he doesn’t want to lose local control over the process.

“I don't want others, whether they're from LA or San Francisco or wherever, to decide our fate as a county,” Perez said. “I do not think that (the other two maps) meet the criteria, specifically the Voting Rights Act, and so despite the fact that I'm going to probably have to drive another 1,000 square miles, I want to comply by the law.”

Other supervisors opt for alternative proposal

Despite Perez’s stance, the remaining members of the board ultimately declined to advance his motion to adopt the ACLU-backed proposal.

Speaking after Perez, Fifth District Supervisor Jeff Hewitt said he had spent many past hours campaigning in the Latino communities of Perris and Moreno Valley to “show that I wasn't going to treat them any differently or that I was going to treat anybody else.”

“We have to be careful about (when) we start identifying people by checking off a box,” Hewitt said. “We've already done that. We've really, really divided ourselves the last year and a half politically over a tiny virus that we can't even see with the naked eye. I don't want to do that based upon what our DNA decides (regarding) the way that light's going to reflect off of our skin.”

Hewitt, who lives in Calimesa, also noted the map creating two Latino-majority districts would also place him in the same district as Third District Supervisor Chuck Washington, though First District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries then reminded the board that they are not allowed to discuss incumbency in the process.

Jeffries, who has already announced his plan to retire in 2024, said he saw issues with the other proposals, but he struggled with certain aspects of the ACLU-backed map, particularly that it would split the city of Menifee into three districts.

Ultimately, board chair and Second District Supervisor Karen Spiegel advanced the alternative proposal, which establishes a single Latino-majority district in the city of Riverside and neighboring communities, and the board approved the map by a 4-1 vote, with only Perez in opposition.

The issue will return to the board at its meeting next Tuesday for final approval of the map and an accompanying resolution.

Trio of local lawmakers say county will be 'defending a map that is legally indefensible'

After the board adopted its preferred map, a trio of Democratic Riverside County assemblymembers — Sabrina Cervantes of Corona, Jose Medina of Riverside, and Eduardo Garcia of Coachella — criticized the supervisors' vote in a joint statement Tuesday night.

“We’d like to thank Supervisor Manuel Perez, the only Latino to ever serve on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, for his efforts to fight for a fair redistricting process," the lawmakers state.

"However, we are deeply disappointed that a majority of the members of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors chose a map that violates state and federal law by intentionally fracturing compact and cohesive communities of Latino voters into multiple districts."

The statement notes "numerous civil rights organizations," as well as the lawmakers themselves, offered warnings to the county about potential voting rights violations, "but a majority of the Board and their staffs took no meaningful steps to address these concerns."

"We fear that hardworking Riverside County taxpayers will ultimately be forced to foot the County’s bill for an expensive lawsuit defending a map that is legally indefensible," the lawmakers said.

Tom Coulter covers politics. He can be reached at thomas.coulter@desertsun.com or on Twitter @tomcoulter_.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Riverside County supervisors adopt redistricting proposal despite ACLU opposition