Morgan Hill City Council finally selected a new district map this week that legal and demographic experts say complies with state and federal laws.
The board met on May 18 to consider a new redistricting map, pursuant to an order from the Santa Clara County Superior Court that ruled the previous map illegal. The previous map, known as “Map 103” and approved by the board in March, was ruled by Judge Julie A. Emede to be in violation of the California Fair Maps Act.
Emede told the council to meet again to choose a card that complies with the law. The body voted 4-0 on May 18 to adopt the council’s district map known as “NDC Green”, which had been suggested for approval by a minority of council members at previous meetings. Council member Rene Spring abstained from voting.
The city is due back in court May 23 for a conference with the judge to ensure the green map meets all requirements of state and federal laws, including the Fair Maps Act. The city’s redistricting efforts ended in court after former mayor Steve Tate, Swanee Edwards and Brian and Kathy Sullivan filed a lawsuit in April alleging map 103 was in violation of the law.
Justin Levitt of National Demographics Corporation, the city’s redistricting consultant, said the green map represents the least change from the previous district map that was adopted in 2017, while still meeting all of the requirements of the Fair Maps Act.
The new map will result in a total of 180 voters drawn into new precincts who will not be able to vote in the November 2022 election, as they would have with the previous map, Levitt said at the May 18 meeting. It is the fewest number of voters who would lose their ability to vote in November of the four different card projects considered by the council.
Those voters will then be able to vote for their district’s council member in 2024.
The council originally voted March 3-2 to approve Map 103 — which is nearly identical to the council’s first district map adopted in 2017 — despite numerous warnings from NDC and City Attorney Don Larkin that the map was illegal under the Fair Maps Act.
Afterward, Tate and the other plaintiffs sent the city a formal notice notifying council of its illegal decision and urging the agency to reconsider map 103. Council met again on April 6, but again voted 3 to 2 to keep Map 103. Mayor Rich Constantine, Councilor Yvonne Martinez Beltran, and Spring voted in favor of Map 103 at both meetings.
Tate and the plaintiffs, represented by attorney Christopher Skinnell, then filed suit in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The case was heard on May 9 and Emede ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
Specifically, Emede ruled that Map 103 failed to meet the Fair Maps Act requirement that council districts be geographically contiguous. District D on Map 103 consists of two regions separated by a parcel of unincorporated county land.
Council member John McKay said May 18 that the months-long redistricting effort should have been straightforward and simple, and he hopes the community can “move past” the division that has resulted from the contentious discussion. He said city staffers were “hounded, harassed (and) bullied” into approving a redistricting map that was clearly illegal.
“The discussion brought out a bad side of Morgan Hill,” McKay said. “Our city attorney was absolutely abused in his words and behavior. Our staff have been mistreated…I personally apologize to our lawyer and consultants, and hope others will join us.
McKay also took aim at an argument made by Constantine and others that the council had requested a “validation action” on April 6 to ask the courts to rule on the legality of Map 103. “We found out very quickly that you can’t do it,” McKay said, noting that such a process would require public notice and would take at least 90 days to complete.
“That would put us in July,” McKay said. The qualifying period for city council and mayoral candidates begins on July 18.
The lawsuit for Tate and the other plaintiffs was filed and decided in less than 30 days.
Martinez Beltran was the strongest supporter of the Map 103 council. She represents District B on the council and her seat is up for re-election in November.
She had argued that Map 103 preserved certain “communities of interest” — particularly home renters and low-income voters — which are also a criterion for preservation in the Fair Maps Act. However, Martinez Beltran did not identify the geographical boundaries of these communities, as required by law.
The Fair Maps Act states that “so far as practicable, the geographic integrity of any local neighborhood or local community of interest shall be respected so as to minimize its division.”
Martinez Beltran said at the May 18 meeting that the city should appeal the May 9 decision against Map 103 “to allow for proper deliberation and provide the community with the explanation they want.” She also wondered what motive Tate and the other plaintiffs had in filing their lawsuit, after the city’s legal team reminded her that their demand letter said the plaintiffs simply wanted the city to follow the law. .
However, Martinez Beltran ultimately voted with the majority of the board in favor of the green card.
Martinez Beltran had also submitted two new versions of Map 103 with changes, but these were not presented with enough public notice to avoid further legal action and potentially higher legal costs.
Morgan Hill resident Doug Muirhead wrote in a public comment for the May 18 agenda item, “Due to the seven-day card circulation requirement, council does not have time to make changes to any of these cards and still meet the court deadline. So it’s another waste of time.
Muirhead recommended that the three members of council who voted for Map 103 should “donate their monthly salaries to the (city’s) general fund until fully reimbursed for estimated $80 court costs. 000 to 100,000 dollars that they inflicted on us”.
Council District D, which is currently represented by McKay, is also up for election in November.
Spring said he abstained in the May 18 vote because he “wanted to show my displeasure with the court’s decision and the process itself.” He supported Map 103 because it represented the status quo and the district boundaries that everyone had already agreed to, and Spring had hoped the court would take into account.
Spring and Martinez Beltran also argued that the voice of low-income voters could be “diluted” by other redistricting map projects that had lower percentages of those residents in each of the four districts.
At least one map – known as map 105 which was considered early in the city process – contained a neighborhood with higher percentages of low-income residents and renters than map 103.
The city’s redistricting process began in late 2021 with public workshops and hearings that allowed Morgan Hill voters to provide input by drawing their own draft maps for the council to consider.
Morgan Hill drafted its first council district map in 2017, after a threat of lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act. Prior to this, all council members were elected by universal suffrage from voters in all city limits.
The state legislature passed the Fair Maps Act in 2019.
Cities with elective council districts are required to consider new boundaries every 10 years based on updated U.S. Census data.