SLO County throws out redistricting map in settlement with citizens group. Now what?

San Luis Obispo County will throw out its radically redrawn district map after settling a lawsuit with a local citizens group and its supporters.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to approve a settlement in a lawsuit against the new district map, filed by San Luis Obispo County Citizens for Good Government and joined by the League of Women’s Voters and other individuals, according to a county news release.

“Given the significant expense and uncertainty associated with taking the case to trial, the Board of Supervisors had agreed to settle the case,” the release said, and stop using the so-called Patten map approved by the previous board’s conservative majority in 2021.

The board cast its votes in closed session, and the release did not share which supervisors voted to support the settlement agreement.

Now, the board must “resume and complete the redistricting process and adopt a new map in time for the March 2024 primary election,” the news release.

Supervisors will consider other maps proposed during the original redistricting process, and allow public comment on the process, the county said.

The agreement requires the county to repeal the Patten map and “reopen the administrative process to adopt a map that complies with the Fair Maps Act and the California Constitution no later than May 15,” according to a news release from SLO County Citizens for Good Government.

“Achieving this result on behalf of the citizens of San Luis Obispo County is a victory for democracy,” group director and president Jim Gardiner said in the news release. “During the course of this litigation, we have come to appreciate that the preservation of free and fair elections is a goal worth fighting for.”

The case will end when the board adopts a new map and presents it to the court, according to the citizens group.

The county also must pay $300,000 to SLO County Citizens for Good Government for their legal fees, the news release said.

What is the Patten map?

In December 2021, the board voted to adopt a controversial district map drawn by Arroyo Grande resident Richard Patten.

A Tribune analysis found that the map favors Republican voters, even though there were about 6,000 more Democrat voters than Republican voters in the 2021 election. The map packed Democrat voters into Districts 2 and 5 — diluting their vote, according to the analysis.

The board selected the Patten map instead of a map drawn by the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce or either of two maps drawn by the firm Redistricting Partners, according to the settlement.

In April, the board will vote to replace the Patten map with one of the other three maps, the settlement said.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson said Friday that the Patten map was gerrymandered to advantage Republican voters, and originally voted against it. He said he’s looking forward to selecting a new map.

“I’m feeling optimistic that we can get a reasonable map,” Gibson said. “This is just one more item off the list of things that we put forward in late January, and I’m happy to see this heading towards getting resolved.”

Supervisor Debbie Arnold originally voted to select the Patten map.

“We worked really hard to follow the Fair Maps Act,” Arnold said Friday. “I think it’s a perfectly legal map.”

Arnold would have preferred that the county continue with litigation to defend the map instead of settling the lawsuit, she said.

“A legal map was voted on by a sitting board in the proper time frame using the Fair Maps Act as a guide, and I’m just disappointed that it can be overturned outside of the redistricting process,” Arnold said.

Still, Arnold said she will “be ready to listen and do my job” to select a new map during the April hearings, she said.

Citizens group sues SLO County over redistricting

In January 2022, SLO County Citizens for Good Government sued the county to overturn the new map, which was designed by citizen Richard Patten and drastically redrew the county’s supervisor districts.

The group argued that the county violated the Fair Maps Act by gerrymandering districts to benefit Republicans and breaking up communities of interest.

That February, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Rita Federman ruled that the county could use the map for the 2022 midterm election to avoid disrupting the San Luis Obispo County clerk-recorder’s ability to prepare for the election.

Federman said that the group might be able to prove that the board “did not proceed in the manner required by law when it failed to consider evidence that the adopted map favored or discriminated against a political party.”

The California Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on Federman’s decision, and in October, Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen was re-assigned to hear the remainder of the case.

In December, the court denied the citizen group’s motion to order the county to provide more personal emails and text messages between the supervisors and their legislative aides related to redistricting under the Civil Discovery Act.

Van Rooyen did, however, approve a motion to add allegations to the lawsuit that the county violated the Public Records Act and the California Constitution during court proceedings.

This gave the citizens group a new path to request messages sent by board members and their aides about redistricting, according to SLO County Citizens for Good Government representative Linda Seifert.

At a Jan. 24 meeting, the board voted 3-2 to direct county counsel to enter into settlement talks for the redistricting case.

The new liberal board majority, Supervisors Bruce Gibson, Dawn Ortiz-Legg and Jimmy Paulding, voted in favor of settlement. Supervisors John Peschong and Debbie Arnold, who originally voted to approve the so-called Patten map, opposed settlement.

Elections code states that the board can only adopt new district boundaries after a new census, if a court orders the board to redistrict, or if “the board is settling a legal claim that its supervisorial district boundaries violate the United States Constitution, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965” or other provisions, county counsel Rita Neal wrote in an email to The Tribune.

As a result, the board can redraw the district boundaries in this case as part of a settlement, Neal said.

At an April 4 board meeting, the supervisors will have the opportunity to vote to set a public hearing for April 18 to discuss repealing the old map and selecting a new one. The public can attend both meetings and speak at public comment.