By Jonathan Goetz; Miriam Raftery also contributed to this article
May 26, 2017 (El Cajon) – Following a lively public hearing on drawing up city council district lines to comply with Voting Rights Act requirements aimed at increasing minority representation, El Cajon’s City council voted 3-2 to adopt Paul Circo’s map PCirco1 for council district elections.
Councilman Ben Kalasho, a Chaldean-American and the only minority on the Council, earlier sent a letter threatening to sue his city if that map was approved and request public records to determine if gerrymandering laws or the Brown Act were violated.
Mayor Bill Wells, Councilmen Gary Kendrick and Bob McClellan voted to approve the map drawn by Circo, a Republican who ran for Council in 2016. Councilmembers Steve Goble and Kalasho voted against it. The district election map chosen squares Kalasho off against fellow Councilman Kendrick, who also lives in Fletcher Hills, on the opposite side of Parkway Plaza. It also pairs Councilmembers Steve Goble and Bob McClellan, leaving two other districts that will be open seats. The Mayor will continue to be elected at-large by all voters in the city.
The plan chosen creates three majority minority districts. Two have 70% minorities and a third has 51% . The minority definition used is broad, including language minorities such as Arabic speakers as well as all classes protected under state and federal Voting Rights Acts.
The NDC Green plan would have avoided pairing Kalasho and Kendrick, as would the ECook1 map. They both gave Kalasho a district of his own. Other maps were favored by various sectors from the Latino and African-American communities, business leaders and others who addressed the Council.
Twelve people spoke in favor of the orange2 map, along with 21 members of the Iraqi Community Soccer Team that stood silently in support. Twelve others spoke in favor of the BJohnson1 map, seven spoke in favor of the green map and/or ECook1, and Paul Circo spoke in favor of Circo’s map, which his pastor also supported and a second speaker backed with revisions.
Speaking on behalf of the NDC Green and ECook1 maps were six to eight people including Bonnie Price, a PhD who specialized in urban development who is also an officer in the East County Democratic Club, which also submitted a petition with over 100 signatures.
“ECook1 and NDC Green keep populations of like interests together and I also think they are very helpful to retention of the only Chaldean on the City Council,” Price said. “I think that’s very important that immigrant communities who contributed so much to this city in terms of the economy are represented and I know that Mr. Kalasho has had town meetings in the evening so that people can come forward with their thoughts and be heard and be represented.”
“Dr. Devorah Fox also backed these two maps. “I teach Sunday School to Iraqi refugees who came in from Mosul over at St. Thomas Syriac Orthodox Church...I don’t know if the people talking in support of the other maps realize they would squeeze out the only Syriac-Arabic speaking Councilmember, Kalasho, a business owner who also heads the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce locally. She cited the importance of having a Councilmember who “understands building businesses here and whom he can go to who speaks his language.”
Marquis Parks from Unified Communities of El Cajon spoke in favor of the BJohnson 1 map. “I got into politics in this city the day Alfred Olango got killed,” he said, referring to an African-American man shot and killed by a white El Cajon police officer. “The council it doesn’t look like it’s a reflection of the representation of the people sitting behind me,” he added. “BJohnson1 is a great place to start to see that diversity in the council seats as well as proper representation and voices of the community that will help out in crisis and to help keep our city staff and put trust back into those who are sworn to serve and protect us.”
Rev. Gerald Brown of CSA of San Diego County said, “We’re standing for BJohnson1 because we’re looking at bringing communities together, communities that have been underserved. I want to see that the Chaldean and our Muslim brothers and sisters our Arab brothers and sisters come together (applause) and we stand together as one for this community.”
In between, Dr. Thabit Khalaf and Jawdat Alobeidi, both advocating for the orange2 map. Councilman Bob McClellan asked “If we could not clap after everybody talks this would get through a lot faster.”
Alobeidi, who is with the Iraqi Center for Dialogue advocated for the orange2 map because “It represents lingual diversity and social diversity.”
Noori Barka said that Chaldeans[Iraqi Christians] are “one of the largest group of business owners in the city of El Cajon. I’m speaking now on behalf of these Chaldeans who are here and maybe many other Chaldeans who could not make it. I represent the group the Chaldean League. On behalf of all of our community I am here to support the orange map.” A representative of the Iraqi Community Soccer team also spoke in favor of the orange map, with all 21 team members present.
After public comments, Council members weighed in for discussion on the colored maps, that Mayor Wells referred to as "sherbert."
Of the winning map, Kendrick said he supported PCirco1, then listed its attributes” … the compact clean lines, three majority minority districts, two heavy minority districts and two heavy renter districts; it’s along major roads, very clean lines, it’s clear there’s no gerrymandering here. That’s my favorite at this point because I think it meets a lot of the needs. It may be kind of a compromise but still there’s a good chance that somebody who is a renter and a minority could get elected without a whole lot of trouble in districts 2 and 4.”
National Demographics Corporation, the demographics consulting firm hired by the city, indicated the map chosen had the most compact distracts and like others presented, appeared to meet legal standards under the California and federal Voting Rights Act. Kalasho contends that he may file a legal challenged based on potential loss of the only minority currently on the council, which he claims is discriminatory.
However Councilman Steve Goble voted no on the Circo map. The Circo map has three majority minority districts to me that diffuses the concentration of the voice that perhaps the California Voting Rights Act is trying to create and orange2 has 2 majority minority districts and concentrates that a little bit more.” The measure passed 3-2.
A second vote, which passed 4-1, puts Kendrick’s district up first in 2018, since his term ends at that time.
Kalasho retains his council at-large seat until 2020. He can however run against Kendrick in 2018 in the newly created district. If he loses, he would have to step down in 2020, though Kalasho has indicated he is considering running for mayor in 2020.