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Politics

Watchdog group seeks probe of Campbell staffer's involvement in City Council redistricting

City Councilwoman Jen Campbell smiles while attending a trash pick-up in Rose Creek, April 27, 2019.
Andi Dukleth
City Councilwoman Jen Campbell smiles while attending a trash pick-up in Rose Creek, April 27, 2019.

A local watchdog group has asked the San Diego City Attorney's Office to investigate whether City Council President Jen Campbell or her staff improperly influenced the ongoing process of drawing new council districts.

For months, the city's independent Redistricting Commission has been poring over dozens of maps drawn by commissioners and members of the public with the goal of creating new districts based on the 2020 Census.

A letter sent late last week from Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance (MoGo) questioned whether Campbell's senior policy advisor, Seamus Kennedy, had a hand in crafting the boundaries of Campbell's own District 2, as it appears in the map currently under consideration by commissioners.

The City Charter prohibits council districts from being “drawn for the purpose of advantaging or protecting incumbents."

On Monday, Campbell responded to questions from KPBS on the issue, saying in an emailed statement that "at no point did I direct my staff to influence the Redistricting Commission in any way."

On Oct. 18, a consulting firm hired by the city presented the Redistricting Commission with four draft maps, all of which placed Campbell in District 1. Had those maps been approved, Campbell would have faced two unappealing choices — move from her longtime home in Bay Ho to seek re-election in District 2 next year; or leave the City Council for two years and try to unseat the District 1 incumbent, Joe LaCava, in 2024.

The Redistricting Commission ultimately rejected all four of the consultant maps. Meanwhile, Kennedy was maneuvering to influence the process both behind the scenes and in public.

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On Oct. 20, Kennedy submitted his own proposed redistricting map that kept Campbell in her current district. He also gave public testimony to the Redistricting Commission on Oct. 21 suggesting the boundaries between Districts 1 and 2 be changed.

In his remarks to commissioners, Kennedy did not disclose that he works for Campbell, both as a staffer in her council office and a consultant on her re-election campaign. Campbell’s campaign finance disclosures show Kennedy was paid nearly $15,400 between January and June when Campbell was fighting a recall effort.

The District 2 boundaries Kennedy proposed are nearly identical to the boundaries in another map that commissioners have adopted as their preferred option going forward. Those boundaries group all of Clairemont together with Mission Beach, Mission Bay, Midway, Ocean Beach and Point Loma.

"It is imperative that your office look into whether the city's redistricting process was improperly influenced in Council President Campbell's favor, specifically by drawing her residence back into District 2 and allowing for her to keep her seat as an incumbent," said the Dec. 3 letter, signed by MoGo Executive Director Geneviéve Jones-Wright.

The map currently under consideration was presented to the Redistricting Commission by Stephen Groce, a longtime resident of Clairemont. Residents there are seeking to be drawn into a single unified council district. The neighborhood is currently split between Districts 2 and 6, meaning neighbors must lobby two councilmembers to advocate for their shared interests.

Groce said in an interview that he had not been in touch with Kennedy while he was crafting the map with a handful of neighbors and that he was merely seeking to balance a host of competing interests.

"My goal was to get everyone at least 80 to 90% of what they wanted," Groce said.

The City Attorney's Office confirmed it had received the letter and said in a statement: "While the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows any person to voice their opinion on a matter of public interest, we will review the concerns expressed in the letter and take appropriate action as warranted."

RELATED: City Councilwoman Jen Campbell Has Politics In Her Blood

Dan Rottenstreich, another of Campbell's campaign consultants, accused Jones-Wright of "manipulating the redistricting process to try and force Dr. Jen Campbell out of office yet again."

Jones-Wright supported the recall campaign, which ultimately failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“The only impropriety here is Jones-Wright weaponizing a supposedly non-political non-profit to advance her clearly political agenda," Rottenstreich said. “Nonetheless, our team was completely unaware that a staff person publicly submitted these maps to the commission in his off time and we respect the city’s independent redistricting process.”

Rottenstreich also pointed out that Councilmember Chris Cate, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, also spoke publicly to the Redistricting Commission.

The Redistricting Commission faces a Dec. 15 deadline to approve a final map of council districts. Its next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 7.

The letter came as the City Council on Monday prepared to decide whether Campbell should remain council president for another year.

Campbell became council president last year after one of the most contentious votes in recent memory. Hundreds of community members urged the council to select Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe for the role, which runs council meetings, doles out committee assignments and puts together council agendas.

Campbell later said in an interview that the selection of the council president "is usually done behind the scenes" and "should never have been taken to the public.