The Elk Grove Planning Commission is not ethnically representative of the community it serves, said local activist and civil rights attorney Amar Shergill.
He addressed the Elk Grove City Council on this point during its Aug. 28 meeting and a week later told the Planning Commission the same message.
Shergill is a proponent of by-district voting, in which candidates are only chosen by voters who live in their council districts. Council members are currently elected by voters across the city, and each member represents a council district. That system is called “from-district.”
Supporters of by-district elections believe the system would encourage more candidates of diverse backgrounds to run in council elections, since campaigns can be smaller and more affordable.
A recent development on this issue led the council to take a closer look at whether it might change the council elections to the by-district system.
This evaluation was initiated after the city, in July, received a letter from Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu civil rights attorney known for threatening to sue cities that do not hold by-district elections. The city is not currently in a lawsuit with Shenkman.
At the last council meeting, Shergill referred to the current voting system for council elections as “institutional racism.”
He then protested that the current Planning Commission does not have members of color. To give the council time to ponder his comment on the Planning Commission’s lack of ethnic diversity, Shergill allotted 30 seconds of his speaking time to a moment of silence.
Eight days later, Shergill approached the Planning Commission to speak to them about their lack of ethnic diversity, as well as their lack of gender diversity.
“We have a Planning Commission that has no people of color, that has only one woman,” he said. “I know that’s a problem, and I trust that you also agree that’s a problem that needs to be remedied.”
Shergill mentioned that he understands that the commissioners, who were all appointed by the City Council, did not create this lack of diversity.
However, he told them they nonetheless have a role to play in “pushing the conversation.”
“What I’ve proposed in (an email message) is not that any of you should leave, but that maybe we just add two seats right up beside you,” he said. “And we ask the council to add two more (commissioners), hopefully people that are very qualified, and people that are representative of the city, so that this commission looks like the people that it represents.”
Shergill added that the commission is more likely to get better decisions through such diversity.
“As an example, immigrant communities tend to know why we need a kitchen in the garage,” he said. “It’s something that doesn’t come up in a lot of other communities, but immigrant communities get it.”
Planning Commission Chair Mackenzie Wieser responded to Shergill’s comment about adding two more commissioners.
“(It) would not be a decision that we would be privy to making, but I would entertain a conversation with City Council and our mayor about potentially increasing our size,” she said. “Obviously, we would need to look at districting. This is a conversation that does need to be had. We are lacking diversity here, so I can’t ignore that point.”
Commissioner Frank Maita stressed that the commission has had more diversity in the past.
“This is a moment in time,” he said. “As a senior member, I can tell you I’ve served with a lot of minorities on the Planning Commission. So, I don’t feel that there’s any exclusion.”
Past planning commissioners of color included Fedolia “Sparky” Harris, Amy Tong, and Nancy Chaires Espinoza. Tong, who resigned from the commission last year due to family issues, was the commission’s last non-white member.
Commissioner George Murphey echoed Maita’s comments.
“And being the second most senior member, I would agree with Frank on that,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to serve with a number of folks. We don’t choose who’s up here. All we do is apply.”
Wieser concluded the commissioners’ comments on this topic, stressing the need to “be a part of the conversion as it billows up to City Council.”
“Just make sure that we all stay engaged,” she said.