Monterey survived redistricting; Santa Cruz can, too

Monterey City Councilmember Tyller Williamson
(Via Tyller Williamson)

Tyller Williamson, a city councilmember in Monterey, sees redistricting as good for minority communities because it allows them more representation. He also “cautiously supports” an at-large mayor. Monterey transitioned to district elections in November and is still working out the kinks. He’s watching Santa Cruz optimistically and says our two cities can learn from each other.

I’m the first openly LGBTQ+, the first Black, and the youngest person to ever be elected to the Monterey City Council. These identities do not fully define me as an elected official, but I think they do help show how I’m different from what the city is used to seeing in their elected leaders. I won in 2018, at age 31, running on issues including housing, water and transparency.

In February, Monterey finalized the process of moving four at-large councilmember seats to district-based elections. The mayor’s seat remains at-large.

This is similar to what Santa Cruz is doing with Measure E, which asks voters to either support six districts with a separately elected at-large mayor or reject the measure, resulting in seven districts with a rotating mayor.

Since I joined the council, I have also faced questions on districting in our city. I believe in transparency, and feel that for Monterey, and in general, districting allows for greater representation for underrepresented communities.

A major goal of the California Voting Rights Acts is to allow minority communities (aka communities of color) to establish a district where they have majority representation, known as a majority-minority district. In Monterey, no matter how you divide the city, there is not a large enough population of minority communities to collectively establish a majority-minority district.

Despite this, I found value in the city moving to districts.

One major reason centers on renters. They are our most apparent community of interest, as they make up 66% of the city’s population. Yet not one councilmember is a renter.

Districting changes that. Districting provides an opportunity for groups who are traditionally kept from positions of power the opportunity to get elected and represent their community’s interest. It helps level the playing field — a little.

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One may argue that this discriminates against renters forced to move, or who choose to move, while in office. My point is less about those in positions of power and more about voters having the power to elect their candidate of choice, renter or otherwise.

Given this, I applaud Santa Cruz for electing to move to district-based elections.

I know — it was less a choice than a compulsion. Councilmembers felt they had to do this to avoid the threat of future litigation. That’s also what convinced my colleagues and the City of Monterey to move to districts.

In the end, I think our communities will come out stronger for it.

As an outsider, I cautiously express support for an at-large mayor.

Both our cities have a strong city manager form of government, which dilutes the power of the council and the mayor. This is quite different from having a strong mayor, as is the case in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Monterey City Councilmember Tyller Williamson and U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta
Monterey City Councilmember Tyller Williamson (left) and U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta.
(Via Tyller Williamson)

Still, our constituents hold the mayor seat in higher regard than they do a council seat. The mayor also sets the tone on the council and decides the agenda. As such, I think it makes sense to have at-large elections for that position. It maintains a more representative form of government, which is also the choice we in Monterey made.

Of course, this is not risk-free.

Traditional groups in power could continue to overinfluence the at-large election, denying the minority vote an opportunity to have representation in the mayoral seat. Still, I argue since the power is greater as mayor and the person does serve as a community figurehead, the stakes should be higher and the vote more representative.

I acknowledge arguments concerning the process and voter dilution with the six-district Santa Cruz map. To me, these are separate issues that might need to be addressed, but are unrelated to the issue of an at-large mayor.

Santa Cruz currently has a rotating mayor; perhaps a slower transition to an at-large seat can be an alternative solution if voters choose not to support Measure E.

For Santa Cruz, voting on Measure E won’t mean the debates will end. That’s not what happened in Monterey.

Let me explain.

On Nov. 16, the Monterey Council decided to move to districts. That caused two major debates: which district map we were going with and the sequencing of the seats. We made those choices in February.

I lost both battles (funny, not funny).

I wanted districts that established strong renter districts. Our demographer provided four alternative maps, and I chose one that offered the two strongest renter districts. A majority of the council chose otherwise. They chose a map that broke up one of those districts. That will result in a diluted renter vote.

I thought we should schedule elections in the larger rental districts to coincide with the November 2024 presidential election, when voter turnout is strongest. I thought doing this would give renters more representation.

What you need to know about the measures facing Santa Cruz County voters on the June 7 ballot.

The majority of the council disagreed. The two council seats up this fall, Councilmember Ed Smith’s seat and my seat, will be up for reelection this year. Smith’s seat is in one of the more affluent districts, while my seat is in one of the renter-dominant districts.

I also suggested not basing the sequencing schedule on those of us currently in office. Originally, I thought it made sense to run elections for the two renter districts first so they could have representation as soon as possible.

In the end, my opinion got overruled by the majority. It’s frustrating, yes, but losing — as many candidates and supporters of measures will learn in the coming week — is part of our democratic process and our progress toward a more representative government. I celebrate that. Even when I come up short.

Santa Cruz, too, will need to make these choices about how to sequence the district elections.

I have not carefully studied the Santa Cruz maps to understand how the drawing of the lines would benefit or harm disadvantaged communities in the city, but I look forward to watching the impacts of districting in our two cities on opposite sides of Monterey Bay.

Tyller Williamson was elected to the Monterey City Council in 2018. He moved to the Monterey Peninsula in 2010, after accepting a position at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he works as a human resources specialist. He earned his bachelor’s degree in human communication, pre-law, from California State University, Monterey Bay, and a master’s in business administration from the Naval Postgraduate School. Tyller served as a deputy regional field director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. He is a co-founder and co-chair of Monterey Peninsula Pride and leads the Monterey Peninsula Housing Coalition. He also joined the board of the Community Foundation for Monterey County in April.

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