It’s considered one of the more important issues facing county government this year, and local leaders are urging residents to get involved.
They say everyday people can actually shape the discussion and make a difference in the results that are destined to have long-lasting impacts on how communities will be represented when critical decisions are made on the third floor Board of Supervisors chamber inside the County Administration building.
A website was even created to improve access and facilitate ideas, and a couple professional consultants were brought in to explain the process and offer technical support.
And yet, when supervisors held the first of four public hearings regarding “redistricting” on Tuesday afternoon, no one from the public showed up for the in-person meeting.
The board chair paused the meeting to receive voicemail testimony, and only four people called in. Three of the callers were from advocacy groups — with names such as “Central Valley United For Power” and “Leadership Council For Justice and Accountability” — and it wasn’t clear if they were even residents of the county.
“This is the first step in getting the word out and hopefully others that choose to participate in the future will realize this was first step, and it’s time for them to get involved,” Supervisor Lloyd Pareira commented from the dais.
Every 10 years, public agencies must redistrict to determine how current boundaries of their voting districts might be redrawn based on recent Census data — and we had a national Census in 2020, if you didn’t notice with the pandemic wreaking havoc on everything.
By law, the process must include substantial outreach to Merced County residents to ensure supervisorial districts meet strict requirements for population equality and voting rights protections as well as respect for neighborhoods and geographical elements.
There has to be things like equal population in the five representativesupervisorial districts across the county. The county must follow the federal Voting Rights Act. Racial gerrymandering is not permitted. District boundaries have to be easily identifiable and geographically contiguous with undivided neighborhoods and “communities of interest.” Redistricting can’t create voting areas that bypass one group of people to get to a more distant group of people, so to speak.
And then there’s this eyebrow raising commandment from Uncle Sam: Thou shall not favor or discriminate against a political party.
“The primary goal when redrawing election districts is to try and draw lines that respect communities and neighborhoods as much as possible,” said Daron McDaniel, the chairman of the Merced County Board of Supervisors. “That is why we really hope residents get involved with the county’s redistricting efforts. We rely on local knowledge of geographic elements as well as social or economic characteristics of our neighborhoods so we can properly and fairly place them.”
Leaders began initial education efforts in April and May by hosting virtual Town Halls in each district to offer an overview of the redistricting process and encourage residents to get involved.
On Tuesday, Jeff Tilton of the consulting firm National Demographics, echoed the sentiment.
“The big part of this entire process is community involvement,” he said.
So, if you are interested, the next three public meetings regarding redistricting are scheduled for: Aug. 10 at 1:30 p.m., Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m., and Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m.
But wait, there’s more: There will be workshops shops in July to explain to residents how to use the county’s mapping tool resources, many of which are located through the county’s new redistricting website. Yes, individuals will be able to submit draft maps on their own visions of new districts and provide informational feedback. The dates and times of the workshops have yet to be announced, but stay tuned.
These draft maps can be turned in all summer long; however, the county won’t start drawing up final draft maps based on the discussions until well into the fall. One thing that the consultants are waiting for is updated Census data which has been delayed because of the pandemic. They hope to have federal figures by late August, and state data by early to mid-October. A final map of new districts is targeted for the Dec. 7 meeting. The map must be posted for public view at least seven days before adoption.
Meanwhile, those interested should be asking themselves questions such as: What is your neighborhood and what are its geographical boundaries? What defines your community? Would your community benefit from being included in a single district for the purposes of effective and fair representation, or would it benefit from having multiple representatives?
One local caller on Tuesday afternoon warned county leaders that they need to do more physical outreach to people in rural communities who don’t have broadband internet access, or are not computer savvy.
The members of the advocacy groups who called in were mostly concerned about the times those public meetings were taking place. They said afternoon meetings at the County Administration Building made it impossible to attend for many residents who are working.
One advocate called for “Language Justice” so that Spanish, Hmong and Punjabi speakers were well-informed and able to participate in the talks.
Here’s how to speak up
For the upcoming meetings, including Aug. 10, residents will be able to attend in-person or watch virtually by visiting the County’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/MercedCounty) or www.countyofmerced.com/AgendaCenter during the broadcast.
Residents can also learn how to get involved, and access a number of educational resources at the new website: DrawMercedCounty.org.
On the Draw Merced County website, residents can learn about the public hearings plus the information session on map-drawing tools. Residents will also find a tentative schedule of hearings and workshops as dates are determined. So if you are interested, make sure and check the website for details.
Soon, residents will also be able to use online map-drawing tools to submit their own suggestions for redivided county districts and offer feedback on previously-drawn maps.
It’s in your hands … so to speak.
The Board of Supervisors will hold its next regular meeting on June 22, starting at 10 a.m.