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Quickly Reshaping Oakland Politics

The city plans to redraw council district and school board boundary lines in the next few months in ways that could remake Oakland's political landscape.

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The City of Oakland is pushing forward with a plan to redraw city council district and school board boundary lines in a move that has the potential to dramatically reshape politics in the city. And because of a December 31 deadline to complete the redistricting, along with little public notice so far about the proposed plans, citizens may have a limited ability over the next several months to provide adequate input in the process.

The tight time frame is due in part to a decision last summer by City Administrator Deanna Santana that redistricting was not needed. In July 2012, noting that the population difference between the council district with the most constituents and the one with the fewest was far below the 10 percent threshold for mandating redistricting, Santana and Zoning Manager Scott Miller advised Mayor Jean Quan and the council in a memo that federal law and "the results of [city] staff's initial redistricting study would justify not changing the current Council district lines."

But by January of this year, Santana had changed her mind. That month, without the council's knowledge, her office solicited bids for a $40,000 consultant contract to manage redistricting in Oakland. There was no change, however, in the district population numbers between the time the administrator's office declared no redistricting was necessary and when it reversed itself.

Santana's decision to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the redistricting contract without informing the council drew some ire from councilmembers at a meeting last month. District Six Councilwoman Desley Brooks said that she was "a little surprised that the process has gone this far and this is the first time council has the opportunity to have some input." District Three Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney added that "this is a really significant matter that has impact on the most fundamental of our rights as voters, and to not have that weighed in on in a public forum and have the public engage in that process and not have the council weigh in, it seems to me that's just not something we want to relegate to the administrative process."

Council President Pat Kernighan said she asked for the redistricting decision to come before the council for discussion "after I learned that the RFP had been issued and somebody had been selected" to run the redistricting process "and we had not had any input."

Santana's office hired National Demographics Corporation of Glendale to oversee Oakland's redistricting. Among other clients, the company has run redistricting for the states of Arizona and Washington, for Los Angeles County, and for the cities of Phoenix, Pasadena, Santa Rosa, and Modesto.

Santana's office also sparked controversy for proposing to redraw boundary lines for only three council districts rather than the entire city, stating in the RFP that "the City would prefer to adopt new Council boundaries for Districts 2, 3, and 5 (only) by July, 2013." In a March 25 memo, Santana's office added that it had "determined that [the] three Council districts ... were beyond five percent of the ... average of all seven districts" and therefore had "enough population change to warrant redistricting." (The Oakland Unified School District ties its board member districts to the council districts, so the school board seats will automatically be redrawn to conform to the new council lines.)

Then last month, Santana's staffers backed away from that three-district realignment proposal, with City Director of Planning and Building Rachel Flynn telling councilmembers that the three districts "were the ones that need the most attention, but that doesn't mean we can't look at other districts at well."

After Mary Bergen of the League of Women Voters told councilmembers that Oakland was "obligated to look at the entire city," the council quickly shot down the idea of limiting the review to three districts.

Councilmembers also threw out the consultant's proposal to limit the number of community information meetings to five. Gatherings will now take place in all seven council districts. The first round of public workshops are currently scheduled for July 11 at City Hall, July 12 in District Seven, and July 13 in District Four. Workshops for the four remaining districts will be held in September. The consultant's own proposed first draft of the new districts is not scheduled to be released until mid-August, with the council slated to complete the process in October and early November.

The most profound change could come as a result of the council's decision to reject a proposal in a city staff memo that the seven council districts "should include a combination of Hill and Flatlands residents (generally defined as the two sides of the I-580 freeway)." Malcolm Amado Uno, political director of the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network who was also speaking also for the organization Oakland Rising, told councilmembers that requiring a hills-flatlands combination in every district "has the potential to contradict" one of the principles staff had outlined in its redistricting proposal — "that districts consist of contiguous territory in a compact form."

In drafting an amended proposal that removed the hills-flatlands requirement, District One Councilman Dan Kalb said that "while taking out the provision does not prevent districts from crossing 580 or from having hills and flatlands combined, but to explicitly call that out as a requirement is unnecessary."

Each of Oakland's seven council and school districts currently contain both low-to-moderate-income and upper-income areas. As a result, dropping that criterion for redistricting could radically alter both the representation and the political direction of the council and the school board in the years to come, with the possibility of all-hills or all-flatlands districts electing public officials with vastly different mandates.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated Desley Brooks' council district. It's District Six -- not Five.

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