The near future of representative democracy in the city of Philadelphia will be decided right after Labor Day.
And hardly anyone is paying any attention, except for the members of City Council.
Who are bound and determined to screw it up.
Under the City Charter, Philadelphia Council next month must create a new set of boundaries for the 10 City Council districts, reflecting data from the 2010 federal census.
The last time Council had this task, a decade ago, it made a legendary hash of it, blowing its deadline badly only to concoct a terrible crazy quilt of a map that was mostly about maximizing incumbent job security and fund-raising. That terrible map took so long to do that Council members went without pay for months; some think those payless weeks were part of the rason one councilman, Rick Mariano, indulged in the shenanigans that got him sent to prison.
A local mapping software firm, Azavea, did a national study after the 2000 census. It tabbed Philly’s Seventh Council District ,as one of the most contorted, arbitrary, gerrymandered election maps in the entire United States.
When pols draw the lines, then often divide neighborhoods and communities of interest, and they have an obvious self-interest in fostering noncompetitive races.
It’s not just that the districts tilt in favor of incumbents; they tilt so egregiously that they discourage top-notch people from even thinking about running. There’s just no way to overcome the built-in advantages that the map gives the incumbent.
Nothing in Council’s behavior this year suggests that a spirit of reform is going to waft over the new map. There has not been a whiff, a scent, a scintilla of public process yet.
Until now. And it’s not coming from Council.
Robert Cheetham, the public-spirited head of Azavea, has created really cool, but complex, mapping software that puts into the hands of ordinary voters the same data and computing power the political bosses wield when drawing election maps.
Working with us here at WHYY/Newsworks, with our partners, the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and with our friends on the Daily News Editorial Board, Azavea is proposing a public contest.
Its goal: To encourage citizens and civic groups to draw the best Council map for Philadelphia that they can, using its software tool. You can check out this tool at FixPhillyDistricts.com.
We’re inviting both individual and group efforts. Get together with folks on your block, your civic group, your favorite nonprofit. Or sit down and tackle the challenge yourself.
The best maps will win prizes totaling $1,000 and be presented to City Council. Time is short though. Council possibly will make this decision in September, so the contest has to happen in August, even though that’s a month Philly usually spends Down-A-Shore and up in the Poconos.
But what if you’re not a computer whiz, you ask? This software looks tricky. Well, the partners in this project (which also include Philly.com) stand ready to try to give you a little help.
We’re hosting a meeting here at WHYY on Monday, Aug. 8, at 7 p.m. to explain the tool to any interested person or group. Cheetham and his staff will give a run-through; Harris Sokoloff of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement will give some tips on how groups can identify their common goals for a map before they start pointing and clicking. Sandy Shea, editorial page editor of the Daily New, will talk about ideas for putting the public’s maps in front of Council eyes. We’ll also do matchmaking; if you want to give this a try, but not by yourself, we’ll try to hook you up with another group that’s going to craft a map.
After this session, Azavea may also offer online webinars. And we’re hiring a staff support person for the month to help people with questions.
On Aug. 8, we want to fill the room at WHYY’s Hamilton Public Media Commons with righteous people power – enough to counter the smoke-filled room where otherwise the ugly deal will go down.
Please join us.
You can sign up by calling the PPCE at 215-898-1112, or emailing LindaBre@gse.upenn.edu.