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Striking comments overshadow Merced’s progress on redistricting 

 

Members of the Merced City Council — a group of six leaders elected by district, along with a mayor who is elected “at large” — are close to approving a new map with redrawn district boundaries for the 2022 election and beyond.

They are expected to vote on it at their regular meeting on Monday, March 7.

Cities and counties across California have been involved in this state-mandated “redistricting” process since early last summer. The need to change district boundaries is based on new 2020 Census data.

For the City of Merced, the redistricting process appeared to be mostly smooth sailing.

Early on, a diverse, nine-member Redistricting Advisory Committee was unanimously created by the most ethnically diverse council in the city’s history.

There were three Latinos, two African Americans and four White members chosen to serve. By design, a majority of the group (five out of nine) live in the southern half of the city to ensure every neighborhood had a voice.

A website was set up with plenty of background information, and demographic data specific to the city. districts in question. Residents were invited to use a really cool, interactive online tool to create their own maps to be submitted for consideration.

The panel held three public hearings and two workshops on the entire redistricting process. Dozens of community members showed up to offer views on neighborhoods, existing communities, and geographical points of interest.

Before the deadline last month, nearly two dozen maps were submitted, and they were done so anonymously so that committee members could avoid bias in the process.

The committee ended up selecting — unanimously — two overall maps for the City Council to consider on March 7.

During a presentation of the selected maps on Feb. 7, the committee’s chair praised the work of “politically independent, highly diverse, and committed group of public servants” on the committee.

“In what may be an unprecedented show of consensus, every single action taken by the Citizen’s Redistricting Advisory Committee was unanimous,” Ryan Heller said.

Heller informed the council that the two maps — #107 and #203 as listed on the city’s website — are substantially similar, and include key themes that emerged from nearly all the public testimony, including:

• Bear Creek as the appropriate boundary between the northern and southern three districts.

• Best efforts were made to respect development patterns and continuity between historic neighborhoods, while also allowing newer subdivisions to effectively advocate for their own unique needs.

• And special attention was given to communities of interest and neighborhood boundaries.

After the presentation, about nine community members spoke up to support another map — #106 — which a majority of the speakers referred to as the “Merced Forward Together Map.” A review of this particular map reveals that three of the six city districts would contain a majority of Latinos, though not necessarily a majority of Latino voters. Supporters of this map — with at least one connected to the Covered California organization — said they conducted their own public outreach and worked with their own demographer.

The two selected maps did receive two favorable comments from the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and a former council member who were present at the meeting.

Then the discussion went back to the council, and that’s when things got interesting.

Councilman Fernando Echevarria, one of three Latinos on the council, called out Ryan Heller, the city’s own Redistricting Committee chair, for making an “inaccurate” statement.

“He said everything was fair in diversity, and I don’t think that’s a true statement,” Echevarria said.

The councilman added that there should have been more Latinos on the committee since the population of Merced is 56.3 percent Latino.

Mayor Serratto and Heller appeared to be taken aback by the comment, and reminded Echevarria that the committee was indeed selected by all the council members, including Echevarria.

The Times asked Heller about the redistricting process in a brief interview, and he described the committee as a “truly politically independent, geographically balanced, majority minority and majority female committee of Merced’s best and brightest.”

Heller, who previously served on the city’s Charter Review Committee, pointed out that it is unprecedented for an advisory committee to take all unanimous action from start to finish.

“It was a testament to the power of consensus-building, and to the helpful and thoughtful commentary by the citizens who made time to show up and participate in the process.”

Regarding Echevarria’s accusation that Heller wasn’t being truthful about the diversity of the panel, Heller responded: “Look, I’m used to being insulted by Fernando, and quite frankly, I think it puts me in very good company.”

Councilman Kevin Blake spoke up after Echevarria’s outburst: “Why are we working to discredit our speakers? We took the information and it’s up to us to consider it in March.”

According to the city’s current demographic data, Merced is 56 percent Latino, 24 percent White, 12 percent Asian and 6 percent African American. To satisfy Echevarria’s request fro exact racial quotas, the committee would have to kick off the two African American women, and one white member, and add two Latinos and one Asian.

Heller’s stance disagrees with that approach.

“The council chose people based on their qualifications, integrity, political independence, and most of all, because they represented communities who deserve to have a voice in the process. At the time, everyone seemed to agree, as all the appointments were unanimous. It was nice to see the mayor remind one of the dissenting council members of that fact.”

After Echevarria was done speaking, Council member Jesse Ornelas chimed in, saying “It kinda felt like we were settling to fill those [committee] seats.”

Heller said conversation sunk even lower with the comment by Ornelas.

“I was beside myself,” he told the Times. “As he’s saying this, I look across the room to see Ronnie DeAnda [another committee member], an absolute pillar in South Merced, a gentleman in his 80s who has dedicated his entire life to serving other people, sitting in the front row, listening to this nonsense. He shouldn’t have to stomach an insult like that.”

Heller added, “I’m a fairly public person, and I’ve taken my share of arrows. Whatever might have been directed at me … I’ve already forgotten about it. But as for the other eight people who stepped up to serve — they’re civilians. They don’t deserve this. They signed up to do something helpful for the community. They absolutely did not sign up to have their character assassinated or be accused of some bizarre political conspiracy. The worst thing about the comments from the City Council, and a few of the speakers, as well as the one-sided coverage that has come out this far, is that it absolutely discourages volunteerism and public participation. Why would you want to serve your community if you’re just going to be insulted when somebody doesn’t get their way?”

Another thing that happened during the same council discussion was a motion on the floor by Council member Bertha Perez to reveal the identity of those community members who submitted the maps. It failed in a 4-3 vote.

As for a potential closely divided vote on March 7, Heller said: “I have faith in the City Council. I don’t think it will be a 4-3. I think it’ll be a 5-2, or maybe even a 6-1. I trust and respect them enough to put differences aside and do the right thing. … We did our work, we did exactly what we were charged with doing. It’s in their hands now. The only thing I care about is defending the other volunteers who worked so hard at this transparent and politically independent process.”

Stay tuned. March 7 is just around the corner. The next regular meeting of the Merced City Council is set for this Monday, Feb. 21.

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