February 12, 2013
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The city’s redistricting process works and a draft proposal for revising it would inject more politics into a process that’s intentionally apolitical.
“Council directed me to work with an ad hoc citizen’s group to evaluate and propose a new redistricting process that included more public input,” states a Jan. 25 letter from City Council Administrator Aimee Cox to City Clerk Sarah Johnson and Deputy City Attorney Wynetta Massey.
“More public input” sounds like baseball and apple pie. In truth, this is a power grab by the city’s elected politicians.
The draft proposal would undo a tradition of allowing the city clerk — a city employee, not a politician — to unilaterally determine districts without pressure from politicians who have something to gain by influencing boundaries.
Though city politicians have no official say in where the clerk draws boundaries each four years, they have tried to exert influence. Most recently, Councilman Bernie Herpin suggested in April that Johnson create a new district, south of Platte Avenue and east of Circle Drive, that would improve his chance for reelection in the event he decided to run.
“Since I live just north of Platte, this won’t put me in the position of having to run against a minority ‘approved’ candidate, should I decide to seek re-election,” Herpin wrote in an email to Johnson.
Don’t take that wrong. Herpin, a defender of equal opportunity and freedom, wasn’t expressing racism. He was trying to support creation of a district that might help elect minorities to Council while protecting his own interests.
Yet, his communication shows us the political nature of redistricting even in a system designed to prevent political gerrymandering.
“I think what we’re getting is a glimpse of the ugly side of redistricting,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, after Herpin’s email went public.
Proposed changes to the redistricting process, as outlined in the draft, would put council members into the process by allowing them to appoint a “Citizen Committee” to advise the clerk regarding the location of district boundaries. Each of the city’s six districts would have a member on the committee. Three other members would represent the city at-large.
The Citizen Committee would meet at least once in each district in advance of redistricting. The process would include public hearings and protest procedures. When complete, the clerk would purportedly determine district boundaries just as she does today. But the draft proposal says the clerk must provide an explanation “in the event of the Clerk’s decision not to adopt the Committee’s recommendations.”
The whole thing sounds like a mess. It would institutionalize coercion and meetings involving committee members hand-picked by politicians — people who stand to win or lose as a result of the outcome.
Americans benefit from a political process that is intentionally confrontational and chaotic. Various branches of government keep one another in check. Progress is slow and full of participation by individuals and groups with conflicting agendas.
But the political process in Colorado Springs isn’t in need of more contention and pressure from special interests. We have no shortage of that.
It’s great that our politicians battle over allocation of resources and the rights and interests of people they represent. We don’t need a new battle in which council members jockey for control over the boundaries that can make or break their political careers. It’s a risky cure in search of a disease.
We already have a state senator with such a cozy district of support that he doesn’t give a darn about a majority of Springs voters. We don’t need council members who get to act like that after influencing the redistricting process. We don’t need a system that gives incumbents sustained advantages over challengers.
Keep politicians out of this process. Let the city clerk — who has no personal stake in the outcome — continue drawing the map.