Foon Rhee

Is it the right time to right a wrong?

Community members opposing the proposal to sever the Med Center neighborhood from Oak Park attend the City Council meeting on the issue of redistricting in August 2011.
Community members opposing the proposal to sever the Med Center neighborhood from Oak Park attend the City Council meeting on the issue of redistricting in August 2011. Sacramento Bee file

Kevin Johnson didn’t win strong-mayor powers, but his consolation prize is a City Council more to his liking. He’s wasting no time cashing in, seeking a do-over on one of his most stinging defeats in office.

He wants the council to overturn a 2011 vote and put UC Davis Medical Center back in the district that includes Oak Park. This is personal for Johnson, who grew up in Oak Park, but it’s also very political.

Yet at the same time, the mayor is backing the creation of an independent commission to draw council districts – to make it less political, in fact to take the decision out of politicians’ hands entirely. To me, that seems somewhat contradictory.

Johnson is reopening the most contentious part of council redistricting after the 2010 census. Despite rallies led by influential pastors and neighborhood opposition that his office helped organize, the council voted 6-3 to put the medical center in the district represented by Kevin McCarty.

The lingering bitterness from that move helped propel the redistricting commission as one of the “good government” provisions in the strong-mayor measure. While voters soundly rejected Measure L on Nov. 4, key voices on both sides support the redistricting commission.

If and when it is formed, whether to tinker with the district map before the next census in 2020 could be its first order of business. So why push this issue now?

As usual, Johnson makes a strong case for what he wants.

“When it’s about righting a wrong, the sooner the better,” he told me Monday. “The real question is, ‘Why wait?’”

He’s right that the 2011 redistricting was a travesty. It was misguided to take away the medical center campus from Oak Park, a struggling neighborhood on the rise, especially since the council majority ignored its own citizens advisory committee and drew its own district maps in private.

Johnson said he didn’t want to reopen a wound too quickly, but has waited long enough. If the flawed map stays in place too much longer, it will seem permanent, he said. A new independent commission should focus on drawing new districts after the 2020 census.

While the mayor has compelling arguments, I’m not entirely convinced. For one thing, the political timing is difficult to ignore.

Johnson declared at the end of last Thursday night’s meeting that he was asking city staffers for a report on amending the district map. The next step is to come Tuesday night, when he’ll ask the council to bypass its Law and Legislation Committee and put the issue on the council agenda as soon as next Tuesday.

By then, Johnson apparently will have the votes he needs to press forward. Darrell Fong, who voted against the mayor on redistricting, will leave the council after Tuesday night. His replacement, Rick Jennings, a Johnson ally, will be sworn in next Tuesday. That should give the mayor a 5-4 majority.

If this issue stays on the mayor’s timetable, it would sure look like political hardball. The public hearing on the change would be next Tuesday – the last council meeting for McCarty, a thorn in the mayor’s side on the downtown arena and other issues. But the actual vote wouldn’t happen until the next council meeting on Dec. 2, after McCarty is off to the state Assembly.

So McCarty would have to sit there and listen to how wrong he was on redistricting, but wouldn’t get to vote to defend his position. After a decade on the council, so much for a fond farewell.

As the mayor says he’s learned in politics, “There’s never a perfect time.” Still, this power play so soon after the election may make some voters glad that they didn’t give him even more authority.

What would it hurt to at least wait until after the first of the year, after the new council has settled in? The mayor can consider it an early gift to a city that needs a holiday from politics.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

Editor’s note: This column was updated to correct that Sacramento Charter High was not moved out of the City Council district that includes Oak Park.

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