Guest commentary: Redistricting shouldn’t change the size of San Diego City Council District 1

Kayakers explore the cliffs and caves along the coast near Goldfish Point in La Jolla in 2020.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Size isn’t everything in the city of San Diego’s current City Council redistricting effort. It is more important to consider communities of interest, viability of protected habitat areas and compact areas connected by transportation links.

As an engineer, I understand why focusing on population numbers is tempting for demographers. But as a former City Council member, I know that numbers need to be considered in context and should not be a justification for ripping apart strong communities of interest or dividing natural boundaries and watersheds.

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The independent San Diego Redistricting Commission is charged with creating nine City Council district boundaries using a process governed by federal, state and city requirements. The need for redistricting is assessed every 10 years using federal census data.

The city attorney presented the Redistricting Commission with criteria to be considered that can be characterized as:

• Council districts should preserve communities of interest.

• Using natural and man-made boundaries, the council districts should be contiguous and compact with reasonable access between population centers.

• Each council district should contain roughly one-ninth of the city’s population.

The most important of these considerations is preservation of communities of interest, which are identified by similar legislative concerns, shared interests, festivals and neighborhood gatherings, occupations and employment patterns, public transportation, shopping areas, parks, beaches and recreation areas, and shared participation in civic and cultural organizations.

San Diego City Council District 1, which I represented for eight years, is a case in point.

With its growth over the past 10 years, it may be tempting for number crunchers to cut off pieces of the district and paste them onto others.

But doing so would mistakenly divide communities with a 30-year history of working together under strong community planning and advocacy groups on issues of environmental protection, community planning and coastal access. These groups communicate well with each other and with local businesses, developers and the city, and have overseen critical regional growth and infrastructure connectivity that benefits the whole region.

In the 2011 redistricting process, the inclusion of complete planning group areas resulted in nine districts with strong communities of interest, including a compact and contiguous District 1.

The 2011 redistricting made findings that acknowledged District 1’s strong communities of interest.

These findings are still true. District 1 spans the coast and canyons of the city from Carmel Valley to University City and La Jolla and has distinctive geographic boundaries that reflect its striking natural topography and the man-made infrastructure that bounds it.

Some of the most biodiverse areas in North America that depend on connectivity for viability are in District 1.

The Pacific Ocean side of District 1 features an underwater park, five Marine Protected Areas, La Jolla Cove, the La Jolla Children’s Pool, the famous Windansea Beach, La Jolla Shores, and Black’s and Torrey Pines beaches.

These natural areas are of critical importance to the city of San Diego in meeting clean water, Climate Action Plan and state-mandated habitat conservation goals.

UC San Diego forms a hub for District 1 around which a number of the city’s principal economic sectors revolve, notably the biotech and high-tech sectors.

University City east of Interstate 5 would move to neighboring District 6.

Major transportation arterials allow access to all population centers of District 1. These include Interstates 5 and 805, State Routes 56 and 52 and numerous primary arterial streets.

Federal court decisions allow deviations to an absolutely equal population division for districts. Based on a presentation by the city attorney’s office that referenced rulings including a landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case, a total deviation of up to 10 percent (from the largest district’s deviation to the smallest district’s deviation) can be legally acceptable when balanced with other criteria. Legally defensible deviations may be used to account for population shifts to avoid separating areas with distinct economic or social interests, to maintain geographic boundaries and to accommodate communities that may not wish to be split.

Although some districts’ populations, including District 1, are above the one-ninth average of the city’s population, the 2011 redistricting findings are still valid.

All people and groups that share common interests and environmental concerns deserve cohesive representation at the City Council. The Redistricting Commission must be mindful of the disenfranchisement that would occur if communities of interest are not honored above all. After all, size isn’t everything.

Sherri Lightner served eight years as the San Diego City Council member for District 1. She lives in La Jolla. This commentary was originally published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.