Pasadena proceeds with its needless redistricting

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Pasadena City Council

Except for one agenda item which drew a large crowd, many public speakers, an unusually long time of councilmember’s explanations and a 5-4 vote, Tuesday’s (August 20) Pasadena City Council meeting was “Regular.”

Their next meeting, scheduled for Thursday (August 22) at 8 a.m. is going to be “Special.”

The five to four approval vote (the four: Councilmembers Ornaldo Ybarra, Don Harrison, Pat Van Houte and Cody Wheeler) followed 30 minutes of public speakers almost exclusively commenting why they were against the charter redistricting proposal that, if council approves one more time, will go to voters in November.

Mayor Johnny Isbell is the only person who has taken ownership of the controversial plan to (if voters agree) convert the city from an eight single-member district representation to a six district, two at-large format.


Pasadena resident Patricia Gonzales called the redistricting plan, “…nothing more than a political power grab,” and focused on Isbell when she said, “All you’re trying to do is dilute the Hispanic and Latino community from sitting here (as councilmembers),” during public comment.

Other speakers on the topic echoed Gonzales’ points and also said the current structure is less expensive for potential candidates.

“Political power grab” sums it up pretty well. I wrote about this on Tuesday, and not surprisingly it went through on a 5-4 vote, with the Mayor casting the tiebreaker. Here’s a press release from Sen. Sylvia Garcia about it.

Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell submitted a mid-decade redistricting change to the Pasadena City Charter that alters the city council from an eight single-member district council to a hybrid system with two at large seats and six-single member district seats. The change will significantly increase the population size of each council seat and depending on the map could drastically harm the ability of Latinos to elect their candidates of choice. The Pasadena City Council approved the city charter amendment on a 5-4 vote despite overwhelming public opposition in a late evening city council hearing on August 20, 2013.

“This decision by the Mayor and the majority of the Council is exactly the type of change the Voting Rights Act was intended to prevent. I am extremely disappointed that the Council approved this charter amendment despite the opposition by the citizen’s commission and the minority community,” stated Senator Sylvia Garcia.

With the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the City of Pasadena will no longer need to obtain the preclearance of the Department of Justice, despite the fact that a similar election change was denied approval in December of 2012. The measure will likely be added to the November ballot for voter approval.

According to U.S. Department of Justice, since 1982 Texas has had the second highest number of Voting Rights Act Section 5 objections including at least 109 objections since 1982, 12 of which were for statewide voting changes. Texas leads the nation in several categories of voting discrimination, including recent Section 5 violations and Section 2 challenges.

The good news, such as it is, is that this still has to be approved by the voters, so those of you in Pasadena that disapprove of naked power plays can swat it down. It would be very nice if Mayor Isbell were to suffer some backlash from this, in the form of a stinging defeat at the polls. That will likely require a concerted effort to organize and turn out the voters who are negatively affected by this as well as those that just plain don’t like it. I hope such an effort is being put together as we speak.

And remember when I said in that last post that Pasadena was just the beginning of this kind of shenanigans? Well, now Galveston County is joining the fun.

Galveston County commissioners have slashed the number of justice of the peace and constable districts a year after the U.S. Justice Department blocked a similar plan as discriminatory.

The action makes Galveston County the first local government in the Houston region, and possibly in Texas, to make a change that would have been unlawful before a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that weakened the Voting Rights Act.

The Commissioners Court’s Republican majority, in a special meeting Monday, voted 4-1 along party lines to reduce the number of districts for constables and justices of the peace from eight to four, saying the change would increase efficiency and save money. The U.S. Justice Department last year refused to approve a plan to reduce the number of districts to five, saying this would have discriminated against minorities.


The county established eight justice of the peace and constable districts two decades ago to settle a discrimination lawsuit. By reducing the number, the county opens itself up to a civil lawsuit authorized under another section of the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights attorney Chad Dunn said Tuesday that he had been asked to review the implications of the commissioners’ action.

“It’s deeply disappointing that Galveston County chose to move forward with a redistricting map that the Department of Justice has already told them was discriminatory,” Dunn said. “In fact they went a step further and made it more discriminatory.” Dunn declined to name the residents seeking his consultation.


Commissioner Ryan Dennard said before the vote that reducing the number of districts would enhance efficiency and save the county $1 million a year. Two justices together handle only 2 percent of the total justice of the peace cases, Dennard said.

The lone minority and the only Democrat on the court, Commissioner Stephen Holmes, said the county has done no detailed study showing how much money would be saved.

Holmes said he was blindsided by the redistricting plan approved Monday, having learned about it when notice of a special meeting was posted Friday.

Other commissioners’ failure to consult with Holmes was one of the reasons cited by the Justice Department for refusing to approve a redistricting plan last year.

Have you noticed how these redistricting efforts – in Pasadena, in Galveston, and in the Legislature – are being done as “emergency” items, with very short timelines and close to zero public engagement? It’s not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Galveston County Commissioners Court acted with the same bad behavior as before when they got slapped by the Justice Department. Here, the potential good news is that if Galveston County gets sued and loses, they could wind up being subject to preclearance again under Section 3. Assuming that they don’t wind up there as a result of the other ongoing litigation. One can only hope, because it should be abundantly clear by now that the state and far too many of its localities cannot be trusted with this stuff. Hair Balls, Stace, Texas Redistricting, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: The Chron is now covering the developments in Pasadena. This tells you all you need to know about the nature of Mayor Isbell’s stunt:

Isbell declined comment Wednesday on his fast-tracked proposal for the November ballot that was made possible after the U.S. Supreme court recently voided the Voting Right Act’s pre-clearance requirement. He noted that his proposal no longer must pass federal review for potential discrimination.

The proposed charter change would replace two of the city’s eight single-member districts with two seats that are elected citywide. But a citizens committee that reviewed the proposed change rejected it, 11 to 1. A diverse group of committee members preferred the accountability of smaller districts to serve them, said Larry Peacock, who served on that panel.

Emphasis mine. This is happening because Mayor Isbell wants it to happen, because it furthers his political aims and because he thinks he can get away with it. That’s all there is to it.

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5 Responses to Pasadena proceeds with its needless redistricting

  1. Mainstream says:

    I am not up on the details in Pasadena and Galveston, but my reading of the Shelby County decision is that all prior voting changes rejected by DOJ since at least 2006 are automatically now the law. So if Galveston passed a plan in the past, I am unclear why they even need to have a formal vote. I would think the prior, rejected plan automatically becomes law now that the VRA preclearance action is shown to be unconstitutional.

    While the Pasadena 6-2 plan may have lots of politics intertwined, those of us in Houston have lived with a 9-5 and now an 11-5 hybrid system of district and at-large city council positions for many years. A fair argument can be made that having some at-large spots provides some broader perspective about the community as a whole and its needs.

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