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Newly drawn districts await Supervisors' OK Friday; judge in MALDEF suit prepared to impose his own


District 4 Kern County Supervisor David Couch

Attorneys in the MALDEF-Kern County settlement hearing, compelled by a court order to give Latinos a stronger local political voice, have settled on a tentative map of restructured supervisorial district boundaries.

But they're not sharing it just yet.

After nearly seven hours of give-and-take negotiation in separate conference rooms of the U.S. District Court's Bakersfield courthouse with Federal Magistrate Jennifer L. Thurston as the roaming go-between, representatives of county government and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund reached agreement on a plan to redraw district lines.

However, they're not quite ready to submit it for the final approval of  U.S. District Court Judge Dale Drozd, the Fresno-based judge who in February ruled for MALDEF in its suit against Kern County and ordered the settlement hearing.

County Counsel Mark Nations, representing local government interests, emerged from the federal courthouse late Wednesday afternoon to say he would present the latest and best map to the Board of Supervisors in a special session at 9 a.m. Friday. Representatives of the County and MALDEF, which describes itself as the "Latino legal voice for civil rights in America," will then reconvene before Thurston at 2 p.m. to announce the five supervisors' verdict.

The emergency session is needed because the settlement tentatively reached Wednesday is different from what the lawyers had been authorized to approve by the Board of Supervisors. The vote was postponed until Friday because the County needs time to formally notice the supervisor's meeting.

The County's options are limited. If they reject the map, Drozd will take matters into his own hands. He has said he will "immediately" issue a new district map that satisfies provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which the County was found to have violated by gerrymandering Latino voters out of representation commensurate with their population.

Nations would not characterize the proposed map's boundaries or its political implications, nor could he say whether it more closely resembled the County's proposal or MALDEF's, other than to say, "It's a compromise."

MALDEF attorney Denise Hulett credited Nations and the County team for its approach in the tedious process.

"The county is negotiating in good faith," she said. "I think both sides have done that."

"The map we are discussing now remedies the situation and that's why we're optimistic."

Drozd ruled that the current district boundaries dilute Latinos' chances of electing a representative of their choice.

Friday's supervisorial meeting is open to the public, but members of the community may not get much out of participating; it'll be a simple up or down vote, with no option to modify the map.

Nations was assisted at the hearing by contract attorneys Christopher Skinnell and Marguerite Leoni. Supervisors Zack Scrivner and Leticia Perez also attended as representatives of the board.

No decision was announced on whether the date of the upcoming election would be changed to accommodate the late changes to the boundaries. The consensus among participants leaving during the lunch recess was that an election for three seats — rather than the two that would normally be contested this year — would be moved from June to November. The additional race would be in the Fourth District, forcing Supervisor David Couch to seek reelection two years earlier than scheduled, likely in a district with drastically altered boundaries. But no decision was announced as to whether the Fourth District vote would move to 2018.

No matter what, Second District Supervisor Zack Scrivner is facing reelection this year, as is Third District Supervisor Mike Maggard. Both of those races were previously scheduled for this year. But both districts will likely be altered somewhat by the changes.

The process of manipulating district boundaries for purposes of courthouse discussion was taking place live and in real time with the use of computer modeling software that displayed the demographic information, including the number of voting-age residents, of each permutation.

Last week Kern County supervisors had reportedly designed and debated potential maps in closed session, preparing for the settlement conference. Residents of western and northern Kern County weren't happy with that.

Neither were some county officials, including Couch, who are accustomed to debating redrawn districts in a public setting. Because this is a settlement hearing and not a county government session, however, Brown Act requirements do not apply.

Couch's attorney, George Martin, had reportedly tried to argue for a public hearing but the court declined to hear his argument.

Efforts to reach Couch Wednesday afternoon were not successful.

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