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DWB: The View from Downtown

It took a couple hundred ordinary people from Oak Park only a couple of hours Tuesday night to reintroduce the Sacramento City Council to the idea of democracy.

After weeks in which the nine electeds have spent their time playing games, engaging in backroom deals and petty feuds, and blithely ignoring the greater good for the good of their own careers and egos – the council got an earful from the people who will suffer the results of the council’s rough gerrymandering of council districts. 

Payback is a bitch. Especially when you’re just living your life in your district, and someone else’s political payback comes to roost on your porch.

So Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, with a remarkable 57 citizens speaking out, was an encouraging sign that participatory democracy is alive. In fact, it’s pretty pissed off. 

Whether that anger has much impact on council members is an open question. But perhaps Tuesday night’s display of anger was some kind of wake-up call to those members, some elected with as little as a few thousand votes, that their membership in their backscratching (and backstabbing) club is not guaranteed.

Do I sound angry? I’ve actually calmed down since last week’s council meeting, when it first became undeniable that members were going to hijack the redistricting process in order to protect each other – unless, of course, they were hijacking it to punish each other.

Is it high school yet?

Not all of the members of the council are self-serving careerists, but enough are to make a mess of the government process for everyone in our down-on-its-luck city. And that’s where all of this ceases to be entertaining political theatre – did he really just use the phrase "separate but equal"? – and starts having serious impacts on individuals, businesses and whole communities.

For instance, Oak Park.

How Kevin McCarty and Steve Cohn can so cavalierly divide up a longstanding community simply to serve their own interests – and to stick it to council newbie Jay Schenirer by removing a key part of the district he was just elected to serve  – is beyond me. What happened to public service? What happened to the greater good?

What happened to shame?

The map Cohn cleverly dubbed "Neighborhoods Together 2.0" – clever in its Orwellian dishonesty, with a fashionable high-tech sheen – severs the most affluent parts of Oak Park and hands it to Cohn’s ally McCarty.

The people in one of Sacramento’s oldest and most troubled neighborhoods are just going to have to live with it. That’s politics.

But while that map is what drew nearly 200 Oak Parkers to City Hall Tuesday evening, even that bald political power move overshadows the deep systemic corruption of the whole redistricting process since it moved from the citizen’s advisory group that gathered 37 citizen-drawn maps into the gaping maw of raw politics. 

If it wasn’t raw politics, how did Cohn end up with the railyards, far from his East Sac base? This is gerrymandering, impure and simple, and it is against the spirit of the whole citizen’s advisory process. Then there’s the introduction of progressively less-workable maps by Cohn, Sandy Sheedy and McCarty, outside of the public process and partly behind closed doors, raising questions about compliance with the Brown Act, which sets open meeting standards for government.

Meanwhile, Sheedy’s District 2, one of the city’s poorest, where she lives on its affluent southern edge, will remain almost exactly the same, even though leaving it that way splits and thus fundamentally under-represents Sacramento’s sizable but politically unorganized Latino community.

This is all about the status quo, where each district contains a crucial constituency of precisely…one.

The drama will continue next week: At the very end of Tuesday’s meeting, after most people had left, Schenirer asked city staff to redraw the disputed Oak Park boundaries to move the UC Davis Medical Center area back into District 5, forcing the council’s hand.

The change he has requested has negligible impact on population deviation and Voting Rights Act requirements regarding "communities of interest," and it is in direct response to Tuesday’s public outcry.

If the council refuses to accept that change, it will be clear for all to see that this whole process is purely about politics.

That still doesn’t address all the other issues regarding District 2 and Latino representation, as well as Cohn’s seizure of the railyards. But at this point, if this council can come up with something that’s not a total disaster, we’ll have to call it a victory.

But next year, the City Council will stand for election again, and Sacramentans will have a chance to show the City Council members up for reelection – Sheedy, Rob Fong, Bonnie Pannell and McCarty, as well as Mayor Kevin Johnson – what democracy is about.

The candidates will, of course, tap their big contributors and tout their accomplishments and most likely win on the votes that tiny fraction of potential voters who actually go to the polls.

The council members will also use the map they are devising, well beyond the agreed-to process, to ensure that they keep their jobs no matter what the citizens of Oak Park, North Sacramento, or any other part of town want.

You could call it democratic. Then again, there are a lot of other things you could call it. But none of them are flattering.  

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