Quick Take:

The city will soon begin the process of transitioning from at-large city council seats to district-based positions. That involves separating the city into seven voting districts before the November 2022 election.

Santa Cruz will soon kick-start a process to divide the city into seven voting districts ahead of the November 2022 election.

City councilmembers unanimously approved a timeline Tuesday afternoon for a transition from at-large city council elections to district-based ones. The districting effort has been simmering for years, and gained steam in February 2020 with the threat of a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

The city was accused of violating state voting laws with its at-large system, which lets voters in any part of Santa Cruz vote for all seven council spots.

Critics of at-large balloting say it sets the stage for “racially polarized” voting, which the CVRA forbids and which “impairs the ability of one of those protected minority classes to elect candidates of their choice, of their ability to influence an election outcome,” deputy city attorney Victoria Thompson said.

As a compromise — and to avoid a costly legal fight which multiple other California municipalities have lost — Santa Cruz is voluntarily moving toward a system in which voters in individual districts would elect councilmembers who live within each district’s boundary.

Much of the timeline, Thompson said Tuesday, hinges on the release of 2020 U.S. Census data, which has been delayed and is now set to be released in September.

The city must meet certain milestones in order to change its elections system and evade a lawsuit. They include holding public hearings; creating maps that show district boundaries; and council approval of an ordinance that moves to district elections.

On Tuesday, councilmembers also expressed interest in creating an independent commission of community members that could advise the city on its districts.

The road toward creating the seven districts

August: At this point, city staff are expected to have a better idea of whether U.S. Census data will be released in September, as is currently expected, or if the data release will be further delayed. The city also is set to host two public meetings to solicit input from the community on district maps and on a schedule for transitioning all elections from at-large to district-based.

November: National Demographics Corporation, a consultant the city hired last year to oversee the transition process, is scheduled to prepare between two and four draft maps of the seven election districts using the 2020 Census data and also taking into account the aforementioned public input. Councilmembers would review these maps and choose which ones to release to the public for additional community feedback. They also would review a proposed elections transition schedule.

December: City staff would publish one or more district maps and the proposed elections schedule, and set public meetings where the maps would be discussed.

January: Plans call for city staff to host two meetings to solicit the public’s feedback on the maps and elections transition schedule. Staff would use that feedback to revise the documents as needed.

March: The city council would vote on an ordinance moving Santa Cruz from at-large elections to district-based elections.

April: Once approved by the city council, staff would submit the new district documentation to the Santa Cruz County Elections Department for review.

November 2022: If approved by city council and county, the city would host its first district election for councilmembers whose terms are ending.

Follow Isabella Cueto on: Twitter. Isabella joins the Lookout team as a government accountability reporter, building on her experience covering local government for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.Before...