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Fullerton City Council Faces Community Backlash After Approval of New Election Map

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Fullerton City Council members adopted a new district election map, dubbed map 114, in a 3-2 vote on March 8. Map 114 was one of three maps created by the Redistricting Advisory Commission (RAC) to be voted on. The map sets in place the city’s electoral districts for the next decade.

The map faces criticism by a vocal minority of community members claiming the new election map did not take community opinions into consideration. The activists pushed for the adoption of the community submitted map 110 that had undergone rigorous and extensive community testimonies. A compromise between the RAC and activists resulted in the creation of map 112 which they consolidated behind, according to Council Member Jesus Silva in a phone interview with the New University.

“There was no community input for map 114,” Silva said. “[In a public testimony] There were 25 speakers. Three of them supported [map] 114. And the rest either [support map] 112 or 110.”

Community members also called for an independent election commission separate from council member jurisdiction to prevent political biases and electoral interests from influencing the redistricting process. The RAC, at its current state, is an appointed committee where council members have a direct role in electing officials into the commission.

In a phone interview with the New University, District 1 Council Member and Mayor Fred Jung expressed why he voted for map 114 and his disagreements with map 110. 

“When you do redistricting maps you’re looking for equitable and equal representation,” Jung said.

As a previous resident of the Cal State Fullerton and Highway 57 area, both of which are located in District 3 in the new map, Jung argued that map 112 would have one council member represent poor residents living paycheck to paycheck, as well as those living around Skyline Drive, an area known for housing the wealthiest individuals in Fullerton. 

“You’re asking that the same representative that represents them [those living around Skyline Drive] to somehow have a clear understanding of those living in studio and one-bedroom apartments. [It] makes no sense,” Jung said.

Furthermore, map 110 would link multiple colleges that contain differing student demographics into District 3. Cal State Fullerton is a much larger academic institution with many students renting out boarding arrangements. Fullerton College, in contrast, is a community college with many commuters. Together, both colleges do not have the same demands. 

Silva disagreed, arguing that even if these colleges represented different types of student populations, they still engage in the communities within the surrounding area through their jobs, class time and leisure activities.  He contended that both colleges represent a singular community interest.

Jung also accused the proponents of map 110 and 112 of looking to keep Silva in his seat, as it would preserve Silva’s seat within District 3. Map 114 would move Silva into District 2 which is currently under Council Member Nick Dunlap’s jurisdiction. Dunlap was elected in 2020 and is serving a four year term. 

Silva didn’t deny that it’s a possibility that supporters of 110 and 112 have considered his election term as a key factor. 

“I’m very humbled and grateful that they see that I’m doing something that they approve of and they would like to keep me there,” he said. 

Council Member Ahmad Zahra, one of two council members that voted against the new map, also voiced his opinions in an email interview with the New University, saying that map 114 had the highest population deviation (barely below the 10% threshold) while map 110 and map 112 had less and were more supported by the people. However, no map under 10% had ever been legally contested by the city.  

Currently, the RAC is a committee of seven appointed officials. All five council members appoint one official. The newly elected appointees then elect a chair and a vice-chair for a total of seven. A demographer is also hired by the City Clerk to support the commission in redistricting processes. Council Member Zahra and Silva are the only members in the council in favor of an alternative independent commission. 

“It would have facilitated a more community driven map, minimized political biases and built better trust in the process,” Zahra said. 

Council Member Jung contended that even with an independent commission of community members, there would still be party affiliations. “It’s not like jury duty where you are just chosen randomly through the DMV… you have to be an applicant,” he said. “You’re only applying if you have an interest in doing that.” 

Jung argued that the RAC operates as a middle ground, representing the people through its council member appointees while also allowing demographic experts to give their input redistricting decisions. He affirmed that map 114 was not chosen under any political party bias or incumbent.

This redistricting cycle would be the first since Fullerton moved from at-large elections (city-wide) into ward-based elections with a total of five districts representing different parts of the city. The initiative was spearheaded by attorney Kevin Shenkkman who filed a lawsuit in 2014 accusing the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and disenfranchising minority voters under the city-wide electoral process. The city moved to put the issue on the ballot and ward-based elections passed by a 54% majority in 2016. Based in Malibu, Shenkkman utilizes a provision within the CVRA that requires districts to switch from at-large to district elections if it’s proven that minority groups are being underrepresented within the city. Fullerton is one of the many cities he has targeted for litigation including Palmdale, Santa Monica, and Irvine. 

According to demographic documents provided by the city council, Fullerton had upwards to about a 60% Asian voting population concentrated in the northwest by 2013. The Latino population saw similar concentrations in the south. Yet, prior to the district changes, the city council elected predominantly Anglo-whites to office. The city council did not have a single Asian representative from 2000 to 2020.

The implementation of ward-based elections resulted in huge strides in minority representation with the creation of an Asian-majority district in District 1, now represented by Jung. It also created two Latino majority districts in Districts 4 and 5 represented by Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Whitaker, and Zahra. 

However, the very first district map drawn for the ballot vote in 2016 was not without its flaws. Map 8A .also known as the “bar map” was a district map presented by downtown bar owner, Jeremy Popoff, a wand was later adopted by the city council a week before the final vote. Popoff represented the business interests of the downtown area. Shenkman alleged this map would heavily divide the downtown Fullerton area into multiple districts, preventing residents from being represented by one council member. This would strengthen the influence of business interests in all districts but decrease the voice of the residents living downtown. 

Silva believes things were the same back then as they are today. “They didn’t listen to the people, they didn’t listen to constituents,” he said. “They felt that they knew better and they chose what they wanted versus the map the constituents wanted.”

Proponents of Map 8A such as then-Councilwoman Jan Flory believed that all districts should have some jurisdiction in downtown Fullerton. “Everyone in our community has a stake in downtown in its operations and what’s happening there,” Flory said. The map eventually received approval from the city council and was later voted by the electorate in the initial ballot for ward-based elections in 2016. 

The public showed much more support for the alternative map 2A. Jeanette Vazquez, author of the map, had expressed concern for how 8A had circumvented the public input. Her map had “engaged in numerous community hearings and public input.”

Despite recent controversies, the city’s first redistricting negotiations since its initial change from at-large to ward-based elections is a step towards improved civic involvement and fairer representation for residents of Fullerton. 

Kane Hong is a City News Intern for the spring 2022 quarter. He can be reached at kanelh@uci.edu.