Every 10 years, after the census, the boundaries that determine elected officials’ districts are drawn, including that of city councils, boards of supervisors, the state Legislature and Congress.
In the old days, this was the means by which politicians, who were in charge of drawing the lines of their own districts, picked their voters! In the case of the state and congressional district boundaries, the districts are now drawn by a state-appointed independent commission.
As a result of a ballot initiative approved by voters, county supervisor electoral boundaries are now being drawn by a local independent redistricting commission. The ordinance, drafted by Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams, requires that anyone who has worked for a county supervisor or a candidate’s election in the past eight years can’t be a member of, or a consultant to, the redistricting commission. The purpose of this requirement is to preserve the independence of the commission from partisan political interference and any form of “electioneering.”
Predictably, the independence of the commission is under siege by progressive activists.
These include activist progressive attorney Phil Seymour, Santa Barbara County Democratic Party organizing director Spencer Brandt, and Lee Heller, who is a consistently large donor to local Democratic Party candidates. (She recently donated $11,000 to support the re-election of Supervisor Williams.)
This group relentlessly pressured the redistricting commission to forego hiring the firm of Nielsen Merkasmer to serve as its legal counsel based on a very nebulous accusation that company was in violation of the eight-year prohibition. That had to do with the firm simply filling out a report indicating that one of its clients had donated $1,000 to Supervisor Bob Nelson.
Nonetheless, Nielsen was recommended by county staff because it is the only firm in the state that specializes in drawing political boundaries, having provided services to the cities of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, among hundreds of other jurisdictions. Moreover, Nielsen’s bid came in $100,000 less than the attorney the activists wanted, Mr. Fred Woocher!
What both Mr. Seymour and Mr. Woocher failed to disclose is that they were the attorneys on record for a court case representing county Supervisor Doreen Farr, since retired, that certainly fell within the eight-year prohibition. The case ran up a legal bill in excess of $500,000, which Supervisor Farr’s campaign was required to pay unless the attorneys decided to donate their time. This case clearly falls within the eight-year prohibition. The truth is, Mr. Seymour was attempting to clear the field for his former co-counsel.
So, why all the intrigue? Many of the issues that come before the board of supervisors are decided on a 3-2 vote. The partisan activists’ goal is to keep Isla Vista placed in the county’s 3rd District, which is otherwise a North County district, keeping the deciding vote in all matters in the pocket of South County progressives. In that regard, nothing much has changed in the past 30 years as this boundary line incongruity has led to two attempted county splits.
The North County, despite the fact that it is more populous than the South County, is dominated by the South County by way of this Isla Vista machination. This is by virtue of the fact the students in I.V. vote in a monolithic block that overwhelms the rest of the voters in the district they share.
So how does hiring Mr. Woocher fit into this narrative? Well, 20 years ago, COLAB sued the county over redistricting because of the Isla Vista machination. Who did the county hire to defend the IV-centered map? Fred Woocher! The progressives are counting on Mr. Woocher to work his magic again.
Awarding Mr. Woocher the contract violates the spirit and the letter of the ordinance and calls into question the ability of the commission to withstand partisan political influence disguised as legal counsel.
Andy Caldwell is the executive director of COLAB and host of “The Andy Caldwell Radio Show,” weekdays from 3-5 p.m., on News-Press Radio AM 1290.