Saturday, February 11, 2012

McKillip Mishandles Redistricting Issue

Read the column here (12 February 2012).

Though at first glance the topic of this column may appear to be dated in that it is an ongoing story, I do not think so.  That is because HB 804 will doubtlessly be an issue in the upcoming elections.

I originally submitted a version of this column on the morning of Thursday, 02 February.  That afternoon, news broke that the Athens-Clarke County legislative delegation had decided to pull the bill (meaning Bill Cowsert in the Senate).  Jim Thompson offered me the opportunity to revise my column, which I immediately set about doing.  In the meantime, Doc Eldridge contacted Jim to request space in last Sunday’s edition for a piece on the Chamber and the ongoing Selig Development spat.  Jim gave it to him, and offered to move my column back a week (I should resume my regular biweekly schedule next Sunday).  I revised the column a second time later in the week so as to reflect the ongoing nature of the story.  Last I heard on Tim Bryant’s Newsmakers, McKillip is set to introduce his own ten district map, without super districts, later in the week.

As I noted on the Banner-Herald comment board last Tuesday, “l am not married to the idea of super districts, but if we want and/or need to change them, the current situation would seem to be a case study in how not to go about doing so.”

In fact, I think that the idea of having Commission and Board of Education districts correspond has a lot going for it (though there would be practical difficulties to overcome) – but any such change needs to have popular support, not be imposed without widespread popular support by the local legislative delegation to the General Assembly.

HB 804: 

Unified Government’s Charter and Code of Ordinances:

Unified Government’s Reapportionment Committee web page (see the separate pages concerning Reapportionment Committee Members, Reapportionment Maps, and Reapportionment Process):

As part of my 2006 campaign for the District 1 seat on the Athens-Clarke County Commission, I put forth the idea that commission districts should be redrawn so as to concentrate UGA’s dorms and Greek houses, which are currently split among districts 3, 4 and 7.  College students have been on the receiving end of City Hall’s legislative initiatives and I think that carving out a “student” district would not be such a bad idea (for examples of this, see the definition of family ordinance and rental registration debacle).  Though I suggested a change to where the districts lines should be drawn, I have never supported any proposal that would alter the structure of local government.

I penned the following in a column back in July 2011; even though the column ended up with the title of “Redistricting work should give voice to students,” the bit about a “student-centered” commission district was actually my secondary point:

Rather than just tweak existing commission and school board district lines, I think that the redistricting committee recently named by the mayor should consider creating a "student-centered" commission district.

I suggest that approach because the University of Georgia's dormitories and fraternity and sorority houses are split among three commission districts. Though grouping them into a single district would not affect many students who live off campus, it would serve to concentrate student voting power much more so than is currently the case. After all, students are routinely the focus of new ordinances and enforcement mechanisms adopted by the commission, so why should they not have representation?

At the state level, I have long maintained that turning the decennial redrawing of Georgia’s congressional, state House of Representatives, and state Senate districts over to a nonpartisan commission is an idea whose time has come.  This is because, when in the majority underneath the Gold Dome, neither party has shown itself capable of resisting the temptation to play political games with the redistricting process.  Though this proposal would change who draws district lines, it does nothing to alter the structure of state government.

I noted in that same column:

If I had my way, though, Athens would take even more of a lead in the redistricting process. And it could, too. Every year, the Athens-Clarke County government submits what amounts to a "wish list" of desired changes to state law to the county's legislative delegation for consideration by the General Assembly. Rather than follow its usual custom and hector those underneath the Gold Dome for more power and higher taxes, perhaps the mayor and commission could ask our local House and Senate members to introduce a bill in the upcoming session to take redistricting out of the hands of the General Assembly, placing it instead in the hands of an independent commission. 

In taking such a step, Georgia would hardly be tilling new ground. According to the most recent information available from the National Council of State Legislatures, quite a few states have enacted such commissions to draw congressional and/or state legislative district lines, the composition and particulars of which vary widely from one state to another.

For example, six states have delegated the "first and final authority" to draw congressional districts to their commissions. Seven other states delegate the "primary responsibility" for drawing congressional districts to their commissions.

Two more states employ "advisory" commissions. Five states have "backup" commissions. Another state maintains a "fallback" commission enabled to draw congressional districts in instances where the state legislature cannot agree on a plan. Yet another state utilizes a non-partisan legislative staff process to redistrict for both its legislative and congressional representation, which then must be approved by the state legislature.

Though relying on an extra-legislative commission is not without its own drawbacks, it is an idea worthy of consideration; given the opportunity to do so, neither of Georgia's major political parties has shown itself able to resist the temptation to gerrymander the state's congressional and legislative districts.

In either case, these are actions that the Mayor and Commission could have undertaken on their own initiatives; others of necessity would have to be involved, but the locals could have gotten the ball rolling.

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