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The Martinez City Council has approved a new district election map that proponents say is much more in line with law than the map the council approved in 2017, which critics said split the downtown vote and help incumbents remain in office.

Now, at least two of those incumbents will be voted off the council when their terms expire, unless they move to a new district.

Nevertheless, the city answered critics — which included a county judge, who called the previous map “absurd” — by appointing an independent commission to come up with a new map, which was required by law after the 2020 Census.

The new map keeps the entire downtown in District 1, as well as the west side of the city down to state Highway 4. District 2 covers the central part of the city, north of Highway 4. District 3 covers the east side of Martinez, on either side of Highway 4. District 4 covers the southwest side of the city, south of Highway 4.

District 1 council member Lara DeLaney has previously questioned how the city can comply with state laws prohibiting elections from impairing the ability of a protected class while also complying with federal laws prohibiting empowering specific groups.

DeLaney has also said the city needs to be careful of creating economic divisions by grouping too many low-income or high-income voters into one district.

Agreeing to disagree

Just before casting her vote Wednesday night, DeLaney said, “I don’t agree with this, but I’ll do it anyway.”

District 2 council member Mark Ross was absent Wednesday. Because the city’s deadline to draw new districts is April 17, there wasn’t time for a second reading of the ordinance at the next council meeting, which is required before an ordinance can take effect. So the council had to pass it as an “urgency ordinance,” requiring four votes to pass.

District 3 council member Brianne Zorn praised the commission for taking on such a big task.

Since passage of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, cities all over the state have switched to district elections. Many choosing not to have faced lawsuits.

“The elephant in the room being that the map that was chosen has put us, three sitting council members, in one district,” Zorn said. “So this is a really big deal, right? That that’s the decision that was made.”

Martinez was among the earliest cities to change its City Council elections from five members elected at-large to a system in which only the mayor would still be elected at-large, and the other four council members would represent geographical districts.

The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 says at-large elections are discriminatory if they impair the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence an election.

Since then, cities all over California have switched to district elections. Many choosing not to switch have faced lawsuits.

Geography lessons

Martinez made the switch and was still sued in November 2018 by two residents, Felix Sanchez and Nancy Noonan, who said the first map “cracks the Latino community, dividing Latino voters nearly equally between each of the four districts.”

Though Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Charles Treat in January 2020 ruled the city’s district boundaries were legal, he said the boundaries were “about as uncompact and barely contiguous as geographically possible.”

The law requires districts to have roughly equal populations and not discriminate against groups to dilute their voting power. As much as possible, they must be geographically contiguous and respect communities of non-political interest.

Christina Reich, chairperson of the redistricting commission and a critic of the 2017 map, told the council Wednesday the commission kept the districts “very geographically contiguous” while trying to keep neighborhoods together.

“We recognized that the downtown district, number 1, had the greatest population of low-income folks, so that was definitely kept together,” she said.