James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/16/2010 04:06:50 PM PST

San Bernardino County will not have a representative on the state commission that will redraw California’s legislative and congressional districts next year.

The county had just one resident, Fay Mason of Upland, among 60 semi-finalists who applied for a seat on the 14-member commission. Last week, state legislative leaders shortened the list to 36, culling Mason.

“I think it’s a travesty,” said Gary Ovitt, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. “We’re not only the largest (county) geographically speaking, but I think we’re the fifth-largest as far as population. I think it’s a real issue.”

Indeed, with Mason gone, San Bernardino is the most populous county to not have at least one finalist.

Mason did not return calls for comment, but several local lawmakers, whose political futures rest at least partly in the hands of the commission, said they are concerned the county won’t be represented.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, wrote a letter Tuesday to the California State Auditor’s office, which is overseeing the commission selection process, asking that the office reconsidering the selection process “to ensure that San Bernardino County is given representation.”

“I fear this exclusion of San Bernardino County may detrimentally impact the Inland region, and raises larger questions on the overall equity of the Citizens Redistricting Commission process,” Baca wrote.

A spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, said, “Anybody who represents San Bernardino County is going to be concerned that there aren’t any representatives (from the county) on this commission.”

The commission, approved by voters in 2008, will redraw the boundaries of congressional, state Assembly and state Senate districts. Part of the commission’s goal is to draw districts that, unlike many current districts, keep cities and communities together rather than dividing them between lawmakers. That could lead to districts that are more competitive.

While Baca, Ovitt and Lewis expressed concern, other lawmakers said it’s not a complete surprise that San Bernardino County would be left out of the mix.

“In a perfect world, you’d love to see fair equity across geography and ethnicity and in terms of (political) party,” said Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills. “But I don’t think there were that many spots open.”

Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Ontario, said the state’s usual redistricting process, in which state legislators themselves draw district boundaries, at least gave the entire state a voice.

“Our biggest fear was that it was going to be impossible for a 14-member commission to include representatives from every geographic region,” Torres said. “The old way had its problems, but at least it included representation from every county.”

With San Bernardino out of the running, she said it’s now incumbent upon county residents to be extra-involved in the process. The commission is expected to hold meetings around the state next year.

“Every time the community is given the opportunity for input, they’re going to have to be vigilant,” Torres said. “We’re going to have to be very, very vigilant in ensuring our voice out here is heard.”

While San Bernardino has no finalists, Riverside County has two and Los Angeles County has nine, including Peter Yao of Claremont.

Yao, a Claremont city councilman, said he is surprised he made it this far, given that he holds elected office.

“Being an elected official, you make decisions and a lot of decisions anger a lot of people,” Yao said.

Another factor that could have torpedoed Yao’s chances is his relationship with the now-former city attorney of Bell, the small Los Angeles County city where numerous officials have been charged with corruption and fleecing the public. Before the Bell scandal broke this summer, then-City Attorney Edward Lee wrote Yao a letter recommending Yao to the State Auditor’s Office.

Yao said Lee, who resigned as Bell’s city attorney in August, is a family friend and that their relationship was not professional. He said Lee’s letter came up when he was interviewed by the auditor’s applicant review committee but that the panel was satisfied their relationship had nothing to do with Bell.

Yao would have to resign from his city council seat if selected for the commission. He would then be ineligible from holding public office for the next 10 years.

If he is not chosen, Yao said he plans to run for a third term on the city council.

“I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice,” Yao said. “It’s an honor to serve. If I can assist in making the political system a little better, to me, that’s quite an honor.”

More than 30,000 Californians applied early this year to be commissioners. After several application rounds and interviews with the state auditor’s office, that list was winnowed down to just 60 semi-finalists – 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans and 20 voters registered with neither major party.

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