Opinion: District Maps May Suffer Due to the Political Self-Interest of City Councilmembers

Many considerations are at play as Irvine nears the completion of its map selection process for our potential switch to district elections for the city council. Federal and state law outline a number of requirements, including equal population (more or less), preserving the electoral voice of marginalized groups, geographic contiguity, easily identifiable boundaries, and “compactness” (not bypassing one group of people to get to another). But one of the most important considerations for Irvine, to my way of thinking, is that the districts should be formed of “communities of interest” to the greatest extent possible. 

Falling between geographic contiguity and easily identifiable boundaries in the priority of considerations mandated by state law, the community of interest is sort of a nebulous term. I think the best way to conceive of it is the means by which we give voice to the regions, villages, and neighborhoods of Irvine. North Irvine felt ignored for years when they voiced their concerns about the All American Asphalt plant. The Great Park neighborhoods were placated in their need to have a voice in the development of the Great Park by the establishment of the Great Park Task Force, a largely ineffectual body that has no democratic basis for its membership.

Communities of interest are our remedy for such concerns. The Great Park Neighborhoods need local retail. Our present at-large-elected City Council has failed to deliver. The University community has its interests. Turtle Rockers have theirs. Ensuring that our districts have been devised as effective communities of interest is essential to guaranteeing that each part of Irvine always has at least one councilmember dedicated to its cause. It is important to get this right. And that is why I’m so concerned that we’re about to get it wrong.


Figure 1: District 4 of proposed map 166 welds University Park to Woodbridge despite being separated by Interstate 405.

 

Larry Agran’s Back-Pocket District

Figure 2: From Google Maps, the 12-lane Interstate 405 that separates Woodbridge and University Park

As a case in point, let’s consider the several proposed maps that would include University Park in a district with Woodbridge. With twelve lanes of the mighty Interstate 405 separating University Park from Woodbridge, how could that pairing possibly have communal ties that compete with pairings like Woodbridge and Oak Creek, or Woodbridge and the two Westpark villages?

Woodbridge is tied to the Westpark villages and Oak Creek by a string of shared retail centers along the San Diego Creek and bound by the major East-West thoroughfares of Alton and Barranca. Several parks, sporting facilities, schools, and religious institutions can be found within this corridor, and the San Diego Creek Trail makes these amenities walkable, or at least bikeable, for its residents. Compared to this, the twelve lanes that separate University Park from Woodbridge might as well be a wall.

Figure 3: From Google Maps, the San Diego Creek (in blue) and the East-West thoroughfares of Alton and Barranca and major shopping centers (in orange) that define this corridor and link Woodbridge to the Westpark villages and Oak Creek

And yet, of the eight maps that will likely be considered for final selection during the October 10th hearing — the five focus maps and the three maps that were submitted between September 1st and the September 29th deadline — six of them pair University Park and Woodbridge.


Figure 4: Districts from proposed maps 135, 151, 162, 164, 165, and 166, all of which clumsily weld University Park to Woodbridge.

Why? The reason is evident from an exchange between Councilmember Larry Agran and demographer Dr. Justin Levitt of National Demographics Corporation during the fourth public hearing on districting, held on September 12th:

Agran: “I was elected to a four-year term in November of 2022. If [map 148, pictured below] passes at the 2024 election and Councilmember Carroll is running for reelection, he would be on the ballot, I wouldn’t… whose district am I in from 2024… who do I represent from 2024 to 2026.”

Dr. Levitt: “The answer is because you were elected at large, you continue to serve at large for the length of that term.

Agran: “And then 2026 comes… there’s no place for me to run for reelection from.”

Dr. Levitt: “That’s correct, if that district was put up in 2024.”

Agran: “That’s clearly anti-incumbent. Let me just be honest about it — let’s all be honest about it: anything like that is clearly anti-incumbent.”

 

Figure 5: Map 148, the object of Larry Agran’s line of questioning in which he reveals the priority he places on preserving his incumbency.

To be fair, maintaining the prospect for continuity in office is an allowable consideration in this process. As Dr. Levitt says:

This is the principle that the voters of the community have elected a council and that the decision whether councilmembers continue should be left to voters rather than a stroke on a map.

However, it is a tertiary consideration at best. It falls in priority at the very end of the list, along with future population growth. Mr. Agran’s message is therefore clear: it is more important that he should have a district readily available in his back pocket – should his mayoral ambitions fail – than that we should have the best possible communities of interest as a basis for our districts.

Figure 6: A slide depicting the criteria by which districts should be formed, as presented during public hearings by Dr. Justin Levitt of the National Demographics Corporation

Map 151’s Freeway Problem

Map 151 is the map favored by Councilmember Agran and his supporters, and, after that favor was made clear, most of the maps submitted after the September 12th public hearing made sure to keep Agran and Carroll in separate districts. Map 151 is the source of the problem described above, and that problem is not limited to University Park and Woodbridge. Freeways and toll roads cut through several of 151’s districts:

To a small extent, this is inevitable. Making these maps is quite difficult, and one compromise follows the next as you try to create six districts that are roughly equal in population. Maintaining contiguity can be a challenge given the odd shapes of some of the “precincts” (in the lingo of davesredistricting.org – the tool made available to Irvine residents for drawing maps), which are the predetermined segments from which districts are composited. 

But Map 151 has five of its six districts bisected by freeways or toll roads. Cypress Village and Woodbury are tacked onto the Great Park neighborhoods with no regard for the 133. Northwood and a piece of Lower Peters Canyon are welded to El Camino Real and Walnut with no regard for the Interstate 5. And Rancho San Joaquin and University Park are adjoined to Woodbridge and Westpark I as though the 405 doesn’t exist.

By comparison, Map 148 (the one that occasioned Agran’s above line of questioning) makes a much greater effort to treat freeways as borders. I also maintain that its communities of interest are much more intuitive and logical. And they certainly were not devised for the purpose of keeping a seat at the dais warm for any current councilmembers.

Our Voice Matters More Than Any One Person Who Would Speak For Us

For ten years now I have lived in Woodbridge. I have a cousin in Oak Creek. Not so long ago, I lived in Oak Creek when my sister lived in Woodbridge. I have communed with friends and family while walking or biking the San Diego Creek Trail, or dining at Alton Square, Oak Creek Shopping Center, Woodbridge Village Center, Stone Creek Plaza, Crossroads, and Westpark Plaza. I know the community of interest within which Woodbridge belongs because my personal community has coursed through its veins. I suspect that many of you in Woodbridge, Oak Creek, and the Westpark villages know what that’s like. 

Meanwhile, I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever been to Parkview Center in University Park.  I’ve been to University Park Center a handful of times. Occasionally I drive through University Park. And I’m sure it’s a lovely place and I wish it well. But I don’t really know it. I don’t live it. I have no cause to.

And I have no beef with Councilmember Agran. If anything, I tend to agree with his supporters more than his detractors that his contributions to Irvine outweigh whatever one might criticize him for. But Mr. Agran’s presence on the council is not more important than making sure that this place I have come to love – the setting for our lives along the San Diego Creek – has its best possible voice on the city council. And if Agran has to wait two years to run for office in the one possible future in which he’s not our next mayor, so be it.

Time is running out for you to make sure that your neighborhoods and villages are being given their proper voices. On Tuesday, October 10th, the Irvine City Council will choose the final map that will go to the polls. I hope you’ll make your voices heard. Write to the city council, submit an e-comment, or comment by Zoom or in person. And whatever map that you feel best represents your local community, please tell Councilmember Agran and his colleagues that our community interests come before their personal political ambitions.

Our districts, if well designed, will be an avenue for our communities to speak, and it will be for whomever seeks to represent us to listen. And our collective voice matters more than any one person who would speak for us.