City redistricting might not solve biggest problems

Mon, Oct 22, 2012


About 70 Colorado Springs residents attended a public hearing Saturday morning at the Hillside Community Center. The subject: City Clerk Sarah Johnson’s preliminary redistricting plan.

In November 2010, city voters approved a charter amendment that increased the number of district Council representatives from four to six, with a corresponding reduction in at-large representatives from five to three, all effective in 2013.

Approval required the City Clerk to draw six entirely new districts.

On paper, it’s a simple process. Johnson sought to create contiguous districts with “substantially equal populations,” to avoid splitting precincts, to comply with federal laws, and to “strive for preservation of communities of interest/neighborhoods.”

In practice, it’s not so simple.

The Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO) and the Colorado Springs Diversity Forum each presented detailed alternative plans aimed at better preserving neighborhoods and communities of interest.

Speakers were limited to three minutes, which meant that both CONO and the Diversity Forum had to enlist multiple presenters to display their plans.

Johnson’s plan has some curious features. The historic core of the city, including the North End, Shooks Run, Patty Jewett and central downtown, is divided among three districts. The natural boundary of Interstate 25 is ignored, and Westside “communities of interest” are fragmented.

It’s a map that takes little account of city history, of neighborhoods, or of physical geography. Was the whole process outsourced to India?

Nope — in fact, the map was created right here, but the inevitable disconnects between governmental mandates and realities on the ground severely limited the options of mapmakers.

County Clerk Wayne Williams re-drew and consolidated precinct boundaries last year. The new precincts are larger and more populous than their predecessors, with as many as 7,700 residents in a single precinct. Technical issues essentially preclude splitting precinct lines, and districts must have equal populations. Add federal mandates, consider the desires of minority populations for better representation, and you’ve got quite a task on your hands.

The Diversity Forum’s map seems by far the best of the three. Fewer neighborhoods are divided, districts are more nearly equal in population, the historic core isn’t broken up, and major arterials are used as dividing lines whenever possible.

Former Gazette reporter Rosemary Harris Lytle called the redistricting process inherently flawed.

“Best practices allow a community to explore its own interests,” she said. “In Santa Clara (Calif.) the community was allowed to do this, rather than having (communities of interest) defined by others.”

“This process should have started a year ago,” said longtime community activist Lee Milner. “If I were running for City Council in April, I’d be very unhappy that the districts won’t be finalized until Nov. 13.”

Saturday’s meeting was the only opportunity for public input. Johnson said that she would take all of the comments and concerns into account before creating the final map.

“I don’t want to give the impression that any particular special interest group has my ear,” she said. “I haven’t met with the mayor, I haven’t met with Council, I haven’t met with any (community groups).”

Milner wasn’t impressed.

“I don’t know whether she ought to be bragging about refusing to meet with anybody,” he said later. “If she has the final say, she ought to meet with everybody, and schedule more than one public hearing.”

Milner may have a point, but it’s clear that Johnson is comfortable with her role as the “decider.”

Asked why she limited speakers to three minutes when only a dozen had signed up to speak, Johnson said that she was simply following City Council procedures.

On the other hand, a reporter asserted, there was no compelling reason to follow those procedures.

“There’s always an ‘other hand’,” replied Johnson with an icy smile.

Rumored Council candidates in attendance included Jill Gaebler (a resident of District 5, unless current boundaries change), former county commissioner Jim Bensberg (District 3) and current School District 11 board member Al Loma (District 4). Incumbent Councilors Tim Leigh (District 1) and Brandy Williams (District 5) were also in the audience.

Loma called for radical change.

“We should go to nine districts,” he said. “People in power don’t give up power willingly. For fair representation, you have to have nine districts.”

He may have a point.

In 1900, five aldermen governed a city of 21,000, each representing 4,250 residents. Fifty years later the ratio had scarcely changed, with nine City Councilors serving a city of 45,500.

And now? Nine councilors and an elected mayor serve 418,000 residents.

We’ve may have grown ten-fold population since 1950, but we have 10 times less democracy — not a cheerful thought.

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