Sonoma County releases documents it says formed basis for board’s confidential redistricting meeting
Talk of west county residents pooling money to hire a lawyer, angry social media posts about the county’s redistricting process and emails alleging gerrymandering formed the basis for a now-controversial closed-door meeting last month of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, records obtained by The Press Democrat show.
However, the documents released by the county do not contain an explicit threat of litigation. The records include handwritten notes from county government’s top civil attorney and texts between Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and County Administrator Sheryl Bratton.
The county provided the documents Thursday in response to a Press Democrat request for public records that County Counsel Robert Pittman said formed the basis for the board’s move into a confidential closed-door session Nov. 19 centered on the county’s fraught redistricting process.
One board member, Chris Coursey, has called that pretense flawed and county officials’ attempt to explain the reasoning “bogus.”
The dispute over the closed meeting reveals how contentious redistricting has become behind the scenes, while also providing a rare glimpse into disagreements aired privately — outside of taxpayers’ and constituents’ view — among county leaders.
Hopkins, the board chair, brought the accusations of gerrymandering to the attention of Bratton and Pittman on Nov. 18 and asked for a closed session, the records show and interviews confirmed.
In two pages of handwritten notes dated Nov. 18 — one day before the confidential meeting — Pittman wrote that he reviewed “dozens of posts” on Hopkins’ Facebook page that “assert claims of racial and political gerrymandering.”
Hopkins has publicly described emails she received with similar claims, and she told Bratton that she had received “oral comments from various individuals that they had pledged $ to challenge the ARC map,” according to Pittman’s notes.
A “handful of comments came from credible sources,” Pittman wrote in the notes. The word “very” is crossed out before “credible.” The sources included “known activists” and current or former officials at the county and city government level, Pittman wrote.
Gerrymandering is generally defined as manipulating electoral boundaries to favor one party or class in elections. Partisan gerrymandering was given broad legal protection by the U.S. Supreme Court under a highly controversial 2019 ruling that split the court 5-4.
The disclosed records include a social media post captured by Hopkins and 10 emails to Hopkins and other supervisors that use the term gerrymandering. They raise fresh questions about how county officials determined they faced a clear enough threat of litigation to justify a closed-door meeting on redistricting — a topic of much public interest and sharp community debate in recent months.
In an interview last week, Pittman said his office assesses the actual chances someone claiming wrongdoing by county government will sue. That includes analyzing people’s and organizations’ resources and motivation, he said. The county does not need a direct threat of a lawsuit to justify a closed session, he said.
“The emails + social media posts likely establish sufficient grounds to support closed session discussion in light of (the U.S. Department of Justice) notice all jurisdictions and legal challenges being mounted to redistricting maps in other CA counties,” he wrote in his notes released by the county.
Pittman was referring to a guidance document posted Sept. 1 by the Department of Justice indicating the federal agency would scrutinize local governments’ compliance with the U.S. Voting Rights Act as they engaged in the once-a-decade act of drawing new political jurisdictions.
Supervisor Chris Coursey has questioned the legal basis for the board’s Nov. 19 confidential meeting, which he said Hopkins used to make a political attack on him, accusing him of rigging redistricting for her loss and his gain.
Hopkins has denied making such an allegation and disputed Coursey’s characterization of the meeting.
“What he is alleging is false,” Hopkins said.
But “a threat of litigation involves a set of facts,” Coursey said in an interview.
“I didn’t hear any set of facts in that closed session. A closed session about the threat of litigation includes a proposed corrective action. I did not hear any proposal of a corrective action in that special session. (Pittman) mentioned a Department of Justice letter from September. I do not recall any mention of that letter in that special session.”
In an email, Pittman wrote that the letter “was discussed with the board as part of my opening comments to lay the legal framework for their closed-session discussion.”