New Charges Slam Redistricting Commish

It has turned into the Commission that Couldn’t Redistrict Right.

New accusations charge that the California Citizens Redistricting Commission isn’t the non-partisan, citizen-run organization as has been promoted statewide. Earlier news stories revealed two commissioners who failed to disclose campaign contributions. Now questions have been raised about the California State Auditor’s background investigation of redistricting applicants.

The final redistricting report is due tomorrow, July 29. But amid the latest revelations about commissioners, a complaint has been filed against Redistricting Commission Executive Director Daniel Claypool for attempting to discredit the testimony of a Coachella Valley resident. Bluring the lines even more, the redistricting commission’s Executive Director is a former employee of the state auditor.

At a July 13 redistricting commission hearing, Coachella Valley resident Ellen Swensen testified that public testimony commissioners had received from Democratic activists based in the Coachella area was biased and not accurate. Swensen said that recent testimony provided to the commission, in support of combining Coachella Valley with Imperial Valley, was largely politically driven by two Democratic Party activists.

Almost immediately at the conclusion of her testimony, Swensen said that a redistricting commission staff member attempted to discredit her testimony, causing her to file a formal complaint two days later.

Democratic Activists

At the hearing, Swensen said two activists have political agendas and are behind a push to combine the Coachella and Imperial Valleys to greatly boost the numbers of Democratic votes for the district. The activists are: Greg Lucas Rodriguez, a self-described “Democratic Party and LGBT activist and consultant,” and Executive Board Member of the California Democratic Party. And Julie Bornstein, a former assemblywoman and spokeswoman for the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee, as well as a former congressional candidate who lost to Mary Bono Mack in 2008.

Bornstein sent a letter by email on June 25 to area residents and local activists asking for people to send letters and testify in support of a merge of Eastern Coachella Valley with Imperial County. “We have a chance to have new districts drawn that will give Democrats an opportunity to win more Assembly and Senate seats and replace Mary Bono Mack with a Democrat,” Bornstein wrote.

Rodriguez’s letter was similar and said that residents “need to emphasize that as a resident of the Coachella Valley or Imperial County, you want to see a Congressional District that includes both Imperial County and Coachella Valley, two Assembly districts, one including Imperial County and Eastern Coachella Valley and the other containing western Coachella Valley through the pass to Beaumont and Banning, and the State Senate district including both Assembly districts.”

At the hearing, Swensen, a professional copywriter, testified that her own motive was not political but was instead economic, hoping “to keep Coachella Valley’s Tourism intact inside Riverside County.”

Swensen said, in a written document to the commissioners, that she was critical of the Bornstein and Rodriguez letters because “much of the testimony to combine Imperial and Coachella Valley is weak in Communities Of Interest (COI) evidence and full of repeated, politically-motivated boilerplate letters.”

“By contrast, our body of quality testimony (112 comments or emails before the initial maps, at least 68 emails after the maps, plus 10 more emails in hand today) shows that our wishes are economically driven. This is about our shared livelihoods. Our COI is defined by resorts, golf, casinos, tennis, hotels, concerts, conventions, and a growing retirement population all here to partake and prosper in our unique desert climate and scenic beauty.”

“Our Tourism COI has little in common with the agricultural and border COI of Imperial County,” Swensen said. “The original testimony from San Diegans and Imperial County folks wanting to be districted together in a ‘border district’ was sincere and not political.”

Farms and Tourism

After her testimony, Swensen said that one commissioner questioned her about the agriculture of the region. “I responded that there is little agriculture, and used the city of Indio as an example, which is not agricultural,” she said. “We are tourism, resorts. We have 150 golf courses. We have concerts, casinos, hotels, conventions.”

But as soon as she was seated after testifying, Swensen said she could see that Claypool, who was seated directly in front of her, “immediately Googled about Indio agriculture and found an unofficial website discussing Indio’s ‘rich agriculture.’ He then sent the link to the commissioners, stating that the city does have rich agriculture.”

As the commission’s executive director, Daniel Claypool’s biography states that he worked as the Senior Auditor Evaluator with the Bureau of State Audits immediately prior to being hired by the commission. Claypool’s “primary assignment was working with the team that implemented the outreach and selection process for the current commission.”

Two days after the hearing, Swensen filed a complaint, in person, with the commission against Claypool.

Rob Wilcox, the commission’s communication director, said he did not know about a complaint filed against Claypool. When I told him that I had a copy of the complaint filed earlier, on July 15, he said he was on another phone call and would call me back. He did not call back.

Swensen Complaint

However, Swensen’s complaint said, “If Mr. Claypool’s biased attempt to discredit a citizen’s testimony is not illegal, it is certainly unethical. My rights as a citizen have been violated by his actions and he has caused me financial hardship since I had to come back.  I wonder how many other good citizens have been treated this way. Since he is Executive Director, I wonder if his obvious bias for certain mapping outcomes is affecting his subordinates on the CRC staff. I recommend that Mr. Claypool be reprimanded and, ideally, removed.”

Commission officials held another session to address Swensen’s  complaint. Swensen said she received a copy of an audio recording of the session in which commissioners discussed performing  a “quick investigation” of her allegations.  Swensen said commissioners reportedly found that Claypool “did no impropriety or wrongdoing,” and referred to her complaint as “unfounded assertions” as well as an “error or misunderstanding.”

Swensen said that they have never emailed a written response to her, nor has she received a response through the U.S. Postal Service, as they state in the audio.

Her response to the commissioners’ closed-door session has not been answered either.

“At this point, I think we need to show how corrupt, biased and unfair this process has become in the hopes of some kind of remedy,” Swensen said. She said she doesn’t expect resolution and believes that the commission is just trying to kill time until the final report is released tomorrow.

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