Less than 17 months after San Mateo County supervisors blessed the new boundaries of their districts, the county announced Wednesday it would go back to the drawing board to settle a discrimination lawsuit.

The boundaries "weren't drawn with an eye toward compliance to the voting rights law," said Robert Rubin, a civil rights attorney and co-lead counsel for the six Asian and Latino residents who sued the county in April 2011. The plaintiffs alleged that the county's at-large system for electing supervisors diluted the voting power of Asian and Latino voters, in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

"Fifty percent of the county is Asian or Latino and yet in the past 20 years there's been only one Latino elected and no Asians elected," Rubin said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Until Nov. 6, when 58.7 percent of voters approved a switch to district-only elections, San Mateo was the only county in California in which supervisors were chosen countywide.

In 2010, the board of supervisors rejected a recommendation that the question of district versus at-large elections be put on the ballot. The board asserted that the at-large system is superior because it makes supervisors more accountable to the whole county.

But as a trial date for the lawsuit approached, the supervisors backtracked last year and placed the question on the ballot after all.

In addition to possibly redrawing district boundaries, the county agreed as part of the settlement to pay an estimated $650,000 in attorneys' fees to the plaintiffs' lawyers, said Michael von Loewenfeldt, one of the lawyers hired by the county to fight the lawsuit.


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Settling the lawsuit does not mean the county agrees that the at-large system was discriminatory, he said, adding that it just seemed to be the logical thing to do after voters chose to go with district elections. And it was a cheaper route than taking the case to trial, he added.

"It's in no way a concession that, before, anything was wrong; it just doesn't matter anymore," von Loewenfeldt said.

Under terms of the settlement, a nine-person redistricting committee comprised of public officials and private citizens will be selected by the board of supervisors.

The committee, which could include Supervisors Adrienne Tissier and Warren Slocum, will hold public meetings around the county to get feedback on where to draw the boundary lines. It will present recommended district boundaries to the full board Oct. 8, according to an announcement released by the county Wednesday. The aim is to have district lines clarified in time for the June 2015 election, when Supervisors Carole Groom and Don Horsley would either step down or run again.

Von Loewenfeldt said the county didn't agree to redraw the district lines, just to "review" them.

"There's no agreement that anything will change," he said. "The county will appoint an advisory committee that will analyze the boundaries."

Groom, who was board president in 2011, said she feels "very comfortable" that the current boundaries didn't fracture minority populations. At the time, she appointed Tissier and now-retired Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson to the ad-hoc committee overseeing the redistricting effort because they represented diverse districts. Neither supervisor voiced discrimination concerns, she said.

Board President Horsley, who helped negotiate the settlement with Groom and other officials, said the county has budgeted up to $100,000 to hire consultants and do community outreach about the redistricting. He said he doesn't anticipate major changes.

"It's hard to say," Horsley said. "I think they'll incrementally change a couple of streets here or there. I don't think it will be a dramatic shift."

Anyone interested in joining the committee can apply starting Monday by going online at www.smcgov.org/districtlines or picking up an application from the county manager's office on the first floor of 400 County Center, Redwood City.

Email Bonnie Eslinger at beslinger@dailynewsgroup.com; follow her at twitter.com/bonnieeslinger.