Transitioning to Districts and Sustaining Effective Governance as a Council
Randi Kay Stephens is associate program manager for the Local Government Basics program of the Institute for Local Government and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Concord (pop. 129,159) is a general law city located in the east San Francisco Bay Area. In 2018, Concord transitioned from a city council whose members were elected at large to district-based council seats. The city conducted its first district-based election in November 2018.
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001 seeks to ensure that every community has an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in local elections, and the law was updated in 2015 to provide that “a voter who is a member of a protected class may bring an action in superior court to enforce the provisions of the CVRA.” Many cities throughout California with populations and demographics similar to Concord subsequently faced legal challenges based on the CVRA and switched from at-large elections to district-based elections. As a result, Concord’s city leaders anticipated that Concord might find itself in a similar situation. In late 2017, the city received two letters from attorneys regarding the CVRA’s provisions. The city council responded by voting in January 2018 to transition to district-based elections and approved a new districts map in March 2018.
Following the move to district-based elections, Concord’s city officials and staff wanted to be proactive in establishing governance norms. Concord City Manager Valerie Barone says, “The council and staff had met the requirements of the CVRA. Now there was time to strategize about impacts, expected or perceived, to the governance of Concord. Transitioning to districts does not necessarily mean that the council has to change the way it engages the public or works with staff — but there seemed to be both pressure and expectations for change. The council and city management wanted any governance changes to be thought through and supported.”
Addressing Potential Impacts
Though the city council and staff alike were committed to a “One Concord” philosophy, they were also concerned about potential impacts of the transition to district elections, including:
- Norms — How could the council build upon and develop norms in this new paradigm?
- Governance philosophy — Would the transition require the council to create a new governance philosophy or norms to govern its decisionmaking process?
- Policy impacts — What impact, if any, would district-based elections have on the city’s policies and protocols, such as the procedure for appointing committee members?
- Teamwork — Could the council continue to work as a cohesive team through this transition?
- A potential pull toward district-based priorities — Would there be pressure to concentrate on individual districts? How could leaders remain focused on the city as a whole?
- A fair and inclusive process — What would be the best way to address specific concerns of a district’s constituents? How and when should items be raised to the entire council to ensure awareness of issues that may have citywide impacts?
Staff set out to research the experiences of other California communities related to the changes that occurred since transitioning to district-based elections; however, they found very little in the way of academic research or best practices on the topic. As a result, the city council and executive staff engaged the Institute for Local Government to facilitate a workshop to discuss these concerns and strengthen the council’s vision and norms. The discussions generated these key determinations:
- Continue to conduct an annual goal-setting workshop to develop citywide priorities and adhere to the priorities throughout the year. As opportunities, challenges or emerging issues arise, determine as a council if the issue aligns with the established priorities and commitments or if a discussion on changing priorities needs to occur.
- Focus on the city as a whole. Continue to allocate city resources throughout municipal boundaries, not by district, because all residents use roads and access essential services while living, working or moving through the city.
- Inform the public about the city’s governance structure, protocols and practices. Host and publicize community leadership classes on city governance. These courses provide in-depth education about the municipal structure and services for residents who want to be more civically engaged. The classes also help educate residents who may opt to become a candidate for council or apply for a board or commission seat.
- Develop future policymakers through comprehensive “onboarding.” Engage in robust onboarding for newly elected and appointed officials so they are prepared to work with the council and to serve the city as a whole.
- Provide candidate training. Engage potential leaders through candidate training; be transparent about how the election process works and the role of staff related to elections.
- Communicate clearly about the council-city manager form of government and the roles and responsibilities of city staff and council. Continue to work through the council-manager form of government to ensure that direction is provided to staff through the manager’s office, all council members have equal access to information, and decisions are made by the council as a whole (not individual council members).
After the 2020 census, the City of Concord will review its district maps again. City Manager Barone says, “The council will have more time to be thoughtful about governance impacts and the experience of the full transition in that process. The community conversations will be different, and the city can ensure a more substantive and inclusive community engagement process. The council will consider how best to use a citizen committee to aid in the process.”
Council Member Tim McGallian was the first member to be elected under the new district-based system. He says, “Changes to the way elected officials come to represent the community do not have to alter the city’s focus on engaging and serving the public. This transition provides an opportunity to reflect on the best strategies for using finite public resources to ensure we are providing high quality, effective community services.”
City Managers: Learn More About This Topic in February
Don’t miss the Institute for Local Government session at the City Managers’ Conference in San Diego, Feb. 13–15, 2019, on “District Elections and the Potential Impacts on Local Governance.” This session will focus on the challenges city managers face when evaluating the switch to district-based elections and will offer tips on how city managers can help ensure local governance meets the needs of all residents. Find more information at www.cacities.org/education-events/city-managers-conference.
What is the California Voting Rights Act?
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001 seeks to ensure that every community has an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in local elections. For more information, see https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB182.
Specific details about Concord’s CVRA public process can be found on the city’s website.