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September 29, 2022

Under court order, city council nixes non-contiguous district map

Morgan Hill elected officials adopt ‘NDC Green’ map

The Morgan Hill City Council this week finally selected a new district map that legal and demographic experts agree complies with state and federal laws.

The council met May 18 to consider a new redistricting map, pursuant to a Santa Clara County Superior Court order that ruled the previous map illegal. The previous map—known as “Map 103” and approved by the council in March—was found by Judge Julie A. Emede to be in violation of the California Fair Maps Act.

Emede told the council to meet again to pick a map that complies with the law. The body voted 4-0 May 18 to adopt the council district map known as “NDC Green,” which had been suggested for approval by a minority of council members at previous meetings. Councilmember Rene Spring abstained from the vote.

The city is scheduled to go back to court May 23 for a conference with the judge, to ensure the Green map meets all the requirements of state and federal laws, including the Fair Maps Act. The city’s redistricting efforts ended up in court after former Mayor Steve Tate, Swanee Edwards and Brian and Kathy Sullivan filed a lawsuit in April alleging that 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 amount of change from the previous district map that was adopted in 2017, while meeting all the requirements of the Fair Maps Act.

The Morgan Hill City Council on May 18 selected the above “NDC Green” map for new districts for the next 10 years.

The new map will result in a total of 180 voters drawn into new districts who will be unable to vote in the November 2022 election, as they would have under the previous map, Levitt said at the May 18 meeting. That is the lowest number of voters who would lose their ability to vote in November among the four different draft maps considered by the council. 

Those voters will next be able to vote for their district’s councilmember in 2024. 

The council initially voted 3-2 March 2 to approve Map 103—which is almost 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.

Then Tate and the other plaintiffs sent the city a demand letter notifying the council of its illegal decision, and urged the body to reconsider Map 103. The council met again April 6, but again voted 3-2 to uphold Map 103. Mayor Rich Constantine, Councilmember Yvonne Martinez Beltran and Spring voted in favor of Map 103 at both meetings.

Tate and the plaintiffs, represented by lawyer Christopher Skinnell, then filed a lawsuit in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The case was heard May 9, and Emede ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor.

Specifically, Emede ruled that Map 103 did not meet the Fair Maps Act’s requirement that council districts must be geographically contiguous. District D on Map 103 consists of two regions that are separated by a patch of unincorporated county land.

Councilmember 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 staff members have been “hounded, badgered (and) bullied” into endorsing a redistricting map that was clearly illegal.

“The discussion has brought out a nasty side of Morgan Hill,” McKay said. “Our city attorney was absolutely mistreated in words and behavior. Our staff has been mistreated… I personally apologize to our city attorney and consultants, and I hope others will join in.”

McKay also took aim at an argument presented by Constantine and others, that the council requested a “validation action” on April 6 to ask the courts to rule on the legality of Map 103. “We found out very quickly you can’t do it,” McKay said, noting that such a process would require public notice and take at least 90 days to complete.

“That would put us into July,” McKay said. The qualifying period for candidates for city council and mayor starts July 18.

The lawsuit by Tate and the other plaintiffs was filed and ruled on in less than 30 days.

Martinez Beltran was the most ardent supporter on the council of Map 103. She represents District B on the council, and her seat is up for reelection in November.

She had argued that Map 103 preserves certain “communities of interest”—particularly home renters and lower-income voters—that are also a criteria for preservation in the Fair Maps Act. However, Martinez Beltran has not identified the geographical boundaries of such communities, as the law requires.

The Fair Maps Act states, “To the extent practicable, the geographic integrity of any local neighborhood or local community of interest shall be respected in a manner that minimizes its division.”

Martinez Beltran said at the May 18 meeting that the city should appeal the May 9 ruling against Map 103 “to allow for proper deliberation and provide the community 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 had reminded her that their demand letter said the plaintiffs simply wanted the city to follow the law.  

However, Martinez Beltran ultimately voted with the council majority in favor of the Green map.

Martinez Beltran had also submitted two new versions of Map 103 with modifications, but these were not presented with enough public notice to avoid further legal action and potentially higher litigation costs.

Morgan Hill resident Doug Muirhead wrote in a public comment for the May 18 agenda item, “Due to the seven-day map circulation requirement, the council does not have time to make changes to any of these maps and still meet the court deadline. So this is another waste of our time.”

Muirhead recommended that the three councilmembers who voted for Map 103 should “donate their monthly pay to the (city’s) general fund until it is made whole for the estimated $80,000 to $100,000 legal costs 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 from 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 district boundaries that everyone had previously already agreed on, and Spring had hoped the court would take that into consideration.

Spring and Martinez Beltran also argued that the voice of lower-income voters could be “diluted” by other draft redistricting maps that had lower percentages of such residents in each of the four districts.

At least one map—known as Map 105 that was considered early on in the city’s process—contained a district with higher percentages of lower-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 offer input by drawing their own draft maps that the council could consider.

Morgan Hill drafted its first council district map in 2017, after a threat of a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act. Before that, all councilmembers were elected at large from voters throughout the entire city limits.

The state legislature adopted 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.

Michael Moore
Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.

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