East Kern representation hangs in balance

In February, the Hon. Dale Drozd, a Fresno-based U.S. district judge, released his findings in a lawsuit between the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the county of Kern. MALDEF claimed that county officials violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act during the 2011 redistricting process. Drozd ruled in favor of MALDEF and directed it to work with the county to redraw boundaries of the county’s five supervisorial districts to add a second “minority majority” district in Kern. Among those advocating for fair representation to East Kern residents during the redistricting process are local community leaders Scott O’Neil and Dave Janiec, who submitted the following letters to Judge Drozd:

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To the Editor:

The recently promulgated (MALDEF) Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, ref. no. 1:16-cv-000568-DAD-JLT, brings great concern for eastern Kern County, in particular, the Indian Wells Valley (IWV). While every citizen in Kern County has a right to fair representation, the decision to reduce the number of supervisors representing eastern Kern from two to one may be justified for the Latinos in the western and central county but it forecloses on the citizens in the eastern county. The fact is that interests differ widely across the county, particularly west to east, which is divided by the Sierra Nevada. All of the primary socio-economic factors differ between these areas: industries and business, demographics, education levels, etc. Furthermore, the proposed resultant district, that includes the eastern county, is extremely large geographically, making fair and effective representation difficult.

The industries between the west and east county are vastly different and consequently require significantly different understanding, awareness and knowledge for these to be fairly represented. For example, western Kern’s industry is primarily agriculture and oil, while eastern Kern’s is primarily renewable energy and aerospace-defense. Both of these industries have emerged and significantly grown in the last two decades. Today the industries in the east are the increasing source of future revenues and jobs in Kern County.

Eastern Kern County is the best region in the nation for solar energy. It is a leader in technology development that underpins the commercialization of space and provides a rare capability for inland space access. It is also a national leader in aerospace and defense technology development and testing. These jobs require higher skills and are higher paying than the majority of jobs in either agriculture or oil. Consequently, reducing the representation for the region that represent the future of the county is shortsighted and risks the county’s preparedness in realizing this growth.

Effectively representing this industry is critical for the future wellbeing of all citizens in Kern County. Concomitantly, effectively representing this industry will also be challenging. Sam Ramirez, who ran for District 1 in 2012, found this first hand. As captured in the “Findings,” he indicated that the communities of Bakersfield and Ridgecrest had vastly different concerns and that he experienced “better connection” with heavily Latino constituents in District 1 than the mostly “Anglo” constituents in the eastern region. Furthermore, the report acknowledges Gary Rodriguez’s truth that Latinos like their representative to be “somebody that lives on your side of town that understands the issues that are facing your side of town.”

This truth holds for both side of the Sierras. It is especially important when the local industry is unique within the county. I am not being pejorative or critical. I think Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Rodriguez have identified critical criteria for representation. Their ideas are universal and not just pertinent to the Latino community.

Unfortunately, while the recommendations stemming from the “Finding and Conclusions” may in fact remedy the representation of Latino voters in the county, it also may do so at the sake of the future economic engine of the county and the citizens in the eastern areas.

Both of these are extremely important needs that must be seriously considered when formulating the final solution to address the conclusions of the report. The final solution must be carefully and wisely formulated to ensure that both the current and future needs of all the citizens of the county are met. It is because of this gravity that time must be taken to fully understand all, both current and future, issues and needs in developing the path forward. Rushing into a final solution just to be expedient in addressing one aspect of the problem is irresponsible and a “fix” that will most likely end up failing in the long run.

Scott M. O’Neil, executive director Indian Wells Valley Economic Development Corp.

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To the Editor:

The recent decision by the U.S. District Court requiring immediate redistricting of Kern County raises great concern for our representation in East Kern communities. Both redistricting options presented by MALDEF would reduce appropriate representation for East Kern County in providing only one representative for the entire outlying East Kern area, greatly expanding district size and severely limiting the capability of a single supervisor to adequately represent it with reasonable knowledge, community presence, engagement, and effectiveness. Such options merely exchange one underrepresentation for another to the potential detriment of both and the county as a whole.

The mission and needs of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in District 1, and Edwards Air Force Base/NASA Armstrong in District 2, are substantially different with many widely different issues, funding and customer bases. A single supervisor in such a large district would be overextended in performing all constituent responsibilities and representing both at a local, county, state or national level. This would be most critical during a future round of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process where the two facilities could again be in direct competition for substantial workforce impacts or even closures. In such a case, a single supervisor would also likely have a significant conflict of interest.

As one of seven key factors, the BRAC Commission carefully assesses the level of infrastructure and community support at the state, county and city levels. There have been five previous rounds of BRAC, with California taking over half of all the closures nationwide. A strong case can be made that lack of adequate local support at the city, county and state levels was a significant factor in these outcomes. Governor Davis recognized this in establishing his Military Council at the state level.

Kern County has suffered from the oil industry decline and has looked broadly for economic diversity to spread its historic reliance on oil and agriculture. Two of the most rapidly rising economic sectors are high tech and renewable energy. These are the heart and strength of our East Kern Districts and need to be nurtured and expanded across the county.

China Lake and Edwards, combined with Mojave Air and Space Port’s revolutionary role in commercial space, and renewable energy in the solar and wind sectors, provide the real long-term-growth industries in Kern County. They bring an array of higher paying jobs and those necessary to support them, at all levels. Studies show that high-tech jobs produce a local support employment ratio of greater than 4 to 1.

China Lake alone has grown steadily since 2000, particularly in the last five consecutive years, adding over 1,000 jobs, plus the additional employment needed to support them in the community. The National Defense Strategy, developed during the Obama administration and reaffirmed under the Trump administration, is focused on a “Pivot to the Pacific” with increasing reliance on the Navy as the central component, and China Lake as the key research, development, test and evaluation site for that. China Lake has averaged a $100-million increase in orders each of the last three years, totaling over $1.6 billion in Fiscal Year 2017, with additional work assigned for 2018. In 2018 alone, China Lake is hiring over 700 employees, targeting a net growth of 300 jobs and similar numbers for each of the next several years.

High tech and renewable energy growth and employment opportunities represent the future for socio-economic growth in Kern County, raising the standard of living for all groups. Redistricting options must include the historic two-district representation for East Kern while also meeting the court requirement for two majority Latino districts. The District Court hearing for settlement of this issue is set for March 28, 2018. It is key that Kern County maintain adequate representation for the development of its future for all.

J. David Janiec, executive director China Lake Alliance

Story First Published: 2018-03-23