Days before the deadline to present a redistricting map to City Council, a Council committee got loads of advice from members of the public who braved a downpour to attend a hearing at Albert Einstein Medical Center last night.
Advice varied widely on what Council should seek to achieve in the new map of election districts, which is required by law and based on new census figures. Speakers included winners of a contest that invited voters to use computer software to draw their own proposed maps.
Joe Garcia, representing Latino Lines, spoke to the necessity of having a district that factors in the city’s Latino population. He urged Council to “slay the gerrymander … votes must no longer be diluted.”
Jordan Gwendolyn Davis maintained that Council should put the so-called “Gayborhood” – the blocks east of Broad Street and south of Market Street – in the district of Kenyatta Johnson, likely winner of the November election in the current Second District.
She said Johnson has a better understand of the issues facing gay Philadelphians than Mark Squilla, the Democratic nominee in the First District. Davis suggested that swapping the “ethnic white” 26th Ward for the “Gayborhood” would be a “better match for Squilla.”
Adam Bonin of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network questioned why outgoing Council members were voting on the districts. Karen Bojar of Americans for Democratic Action urged transparency and asked Mayor Michael Nutter to veto any gerrymandered map.
The meeting became somewhat heated when the issue of whether Council incumbents home addresses should be factored into redistricting. Some of those in attendance questioned that, but several Council members claimed that the law requires paying attention to that issue.
Voter maps submitted
The second half of the 90-minute meeting was dedicated to sharing the winners of the FixPhillyDistricts contest, which were displayed on a big screen behind the table where the five Council members present were sitting.
The map contest, which drew 70 valid entries, was a joint project among WHYY/NewsWorks, mapping firm Azavea, the Daily News editorial board and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. Contestants used software designed by Azavea.
Azavea’s Robert Cheetham, who was among the judges, introduced seven winning maps, whether the person who designed it was on hand – several were – or not (one winner was from Erie, another from North Carolina).
“Some of these plans are very good,” he said. “Our objective here was to demonstrate that it was possible for, and there was interest in, the public being able to become involved in the process.”
Steve Horton, who won a prize for a plan that did the best job of avoiding ward splits, spoke to the importance of keeping neighborhoods intact so they could rally around issues that matter to them.
The overall winner was John Attanasio, an attorney and Washington Square West Civic Association board member. He said “one characteristic that every principled plan would share is that it would look nothing like the current plan.”
“If Council’s final plan does not at least eliminate all visible gerrymanders,” he continued, “I hope that Council will have the courage to publicly explain exactly what considerations were taken into account to justify the continued existence of these insidious creatures that undermine voters’ rights.”
Eighth’s fate debated
The public hearing itself was a unique exercise in Eighth District leadership, as both the outgoing and likely incoming councilwoman attended.
Afterward, Councilwoman Donna Reed-Miller noted that all the talk about gerrymandering didn’t apply to the Eighth because “we’ve never done it there.” However, having lost some 13,000 residents, the district will have to change shape considerably. By law, the 10 districts have to maintain roughly equal populations.
“Where do we get it from?” she said, noting that growing south toward the Schuylkill River or, more likely, east toward Broad Street and possibly beyond have been discussed. Attanasio’s map, for example, created a compact Eighth District covering most of the Northwest, including Manayunk and Roxborough, now in the Fourth.
Reed Miller said it’s not weird for her to be designing a district that will be handed off to the winner of the November election, likely Cindy Bass, after Council’s next term. Bass was at the hearing, paying close attention.
“I don’t have a say formally, but I’m talking [to those who do] and hopefully, that will be taken into account,” Bass said. Her primary concern is that “it reflects the wishes of the voters, that they’re taken into account” and represented by the official they elected.
Council President Anna Verna said the plan is to present a proposal – and map – to the full Council at Thursday’s meeting with public comment available at meetings throughout September, ideally, passing a final product by month’s end.