Burbank voters got a first look at what could become the city’s new Council districts, which, if approved, would replace the existing at-large voting system.
At the June 14 City Council meeting, the city’s contracted demographer demonstrated the statistical and geographical features of resident-submitted map options, one of which is set to be adopted on July 25. The final map will be a tailored version of those 27 maps submitted by residents.
“I’m pleasantly surprised by how many maps there are, and I am also impressed with the creativity people showed, and the variety of maps that came in,” said Douglas Johnson, a demographer with the National Demographics Corporation, the organization driving the districting process.
The process could ultimately transform the way City Council elections are held. While the Council is reviewing several options for election formats, the prevailing arrangement would break Burbank into five distinct Council districts, where electors vote only for Councilmembers from that district.
That is the method prescribed in the California Voting Rights Act, which “gives effect to voting minorities, with the intent of increasing their influence in elections,” said City Attorney Joe McDougall.
The transition from the current at-large voting system to an arrangement with five City Council districts was forced upon the panel after the city received a notice in August of a potential violation of the CVRA. The letter — sent on behalf of a Burbank voter, Nick Gutierrez — included a demand that the city change its voting system to a by-district approach.
The CVRA allows voters of a protected class — a class of voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group — to sue California cities with at-large systems if they feel the existing system prohibits them from electing candidates of their choice. A successful CVRA claim can include “the imposition of district-based elections that are tailored to remedy a violation of the act.”
The Council had little choice but to jumpstart the districting process, as doing so protects the city from litigation for a short time. They voted unanimously in January to issue a resolution of intent to change to by-district elections, triggering a 90-day “safe harbor” period to forestall litigation.
However, there is much debate in Burbank as to whether districts would really make elections more fair. City officials said that the data gathering, demography analysis and map drawing process needs to take place before it becomes clear which electoral system would be “most democratic,” said Councilwoman Tamala Takahashi in an April meeting.
Previous meetings saw public outrage over the potential transition. Councilmembers vowed that they would not approve of an electoral system that dilutes the vote of protected classes, also noting that the panel may ultimately choose to maintain the current at-large voting system or another election format.
There aren’t a lot of ways to draw districts for Burbank, while still adhering to the rules stipulated by the CVRA, Johnson said. Because of that, some of the maps weren’t “population balanced,” or otherwise fell short on another requirement.
That said, Johnson emphasized that the majority of the maps — 22 out of 27 — were population balanced, “a much higher percentage than normal.”
NDC was hired as part of the districting process to fill in the blanks where residents perhaps missed a small mapping consideration. Two maps added by the demographers were also considered by the Council. They will vote on a final map on July 25.
Residents can still draw and submit maps or provide details about their neighborhood at BurbankCouncilDistricting.com.
RESIDENTS SPEAK UP
Residents chimed in on the districting discussion to share their views. Some outright oppose the transition to districts, while a noticeable minority of speakers came out to ask the Council to ensure the process was fair and equitable for all groups of voters.
“We’re not the city of L.A. We’re 17 square miles, 108,000 residents. It’s been 111 years that at-large has worked for the city of Burbank, and I think we are now putting the cart before the horse,” said former Burbank Mayor Gary Bric.
Another resident, David Donahue, was outraged that of his 60 maps that were submitted, he claimed none of them were included in the final list of maps. He also pointed out that many of the maps could place Vice Mayor Nick Schultz and Councilwoman Tamala Takahashi in the same district, meaning they would compete for the same seat in future elections.
RANK CHOICE VOTING
Members from the League of Women Voters spoke in favor of a rank-choice voting election format, saying that it “improves fairness in elections by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference.”
Johnson pointed out that rank choice voting could theoretically be implemented on top of a districted system, but McDougall clarified that City Clerk Kimberly Clark had already submitted a formal letter to the L.A. County Recorder on behalf of the Council about the possibility of adding rank choice to the county election system.
The response: In order to implement RCV, the city would require adapting and modifying the existing election system and software, which would require authority, time and legislative resources.
It appears that, unless there is a significant push from other cities, the format will not be an option for future elections.
First published in the July 1 print issue of the Burbank Leader.