About a dozen people attended Saturday’s public hearing to give input on redrawing districts of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. The meeting was held at the Ypsilanti Township hall, and was the second of three public hearings scheduled by the county apportionment commission, a five-member group charged with adopting a redistricting plan based on 2010 census data.
Eight people addressed the commission during the hearing, which lasted about an hour. Some argued for a reduction in the current 11 districts, saying it would save costs and make for a better functioning board. Others suggested keeping the same number or increasing the number of districts slightly, for better representation.
It’s likely there will be some changes of district lines, even if the number of districts remains the same. The county’s population grew 6.8%, from 322,895 people in 2000 to 344,791 people in 2010, with some parts showing dramatic population shifts. Ypsilanti’s population decreased 12.6%, while several townships – including Saline, Scio and Webster – saw double-digit growth. The city of Ann Arbor accounts for about a third of the county’s population – its population dropped 0.6% to 113,934. [.pdf file of population data for Washtenaw County]
Commission members indicated that they haven’t yet completed any redistricting proposals, though Larry Kestenbaum – the county clerk and chair of the apportionment commission – said he’s developing one for 12 districts. One speaker at the hearing expressed disappointment that proposals weren’t yet available, saying he had hoped to give feedback on specific redistricting plans.
The apportionment commission met for the first time on March 31, when members set a schedule for the process. Its members, determined by state statute, are: The county clerk (Larry Kestenbaum), county treasurer (Catherine McClary), county prosecuting attorney (Brian Mackie), and the chairs of both the county Republican and Democratic parties (Mark Boonstra and Cleveland Chandler). All but Boonstra are Democrats.
Saturday’s public hearing had a lower turnout than the first hearing, which took place on April 9 at the Pittsfield Township hall – 16 people addressed the commission then, according to draft minutes of the meeting.
The next public hearing is set for Thursday, April 21 at 5:30 p.m. at Webster Township hall, 5665 Webster Church Road. A week later, on April 28, the commission meets again and is expected to present redistricting plans and possibly select one. That meeting, which will include time for public commentary, begins at 5:30 p.m. at the county administration building’s lower-level conference room, 200 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.
The Work of the Apportionment Commission
Larry Kestenbaum, who chairs the apportionment commission, was a few minutes late to the April 16 public hearing – so it was Mark Boonstra who called the meeting to order. He said that at the request of a member of the public, they would begin with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Catherine McClary suggested that they dispense with other agenda items aside from the public hearing, but that it would be good to provide an overview of the criteria the commission must use to complete the redistricting process.
Boonstra briefly outlined the charge of the apportionment commission: To take the new 2010 census data and redraw districts for the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, taking into account population changes in the townships, cities and villages, and in the precincts within those municipalities. For a county the size of Washtenaw, there can be no fewer than five districts, and no more than 21. Currently there are 11 districts – 10 years ago, there were 15. [.pdf map of current districts for the Washtenaw County board of commissioners]
Evaluation criteria for redistricting, as dictated by statute and case law, include:
- Districts must be of substantially equal population. Specifically, each district’s population size must fall within the range of 94.05% to 105.95% of the “ideal” population. The “ideal” district population is calculated by dividing the county population by the number of districts. Washtenaw County’s population is 344,791, based on 2010 census data.
- Each district is represented by a single commissioner – there are no at-large commissioners.
- All parts of a district must be contiguous.
- Districts should be as compact and in as much of a square shape as practical.
- No township or part of a township should be combined with a city or part of a city unless required to meet the population standard.
- Townships, villages and cities should be divided only if necessary to meet the population standard. The same approach applies to precincts.
- Districts should not be drawn to provide a partisan political advantage.
The statute that dictates the apportionment process for county boards is Act 261 of 1966.
Boonstra concluded by saying they won’t be able to satisfy all these criteria completely – it’s a balancing act.
April 16 Public Hearing
Kestenbaum then opened the public hearing portion of the April 16 meeting. Eight people commented, some of them speaking multiple times.
Timothy King of Ypsilanti Township told the commission that he’s been a precinct delegate in the past, and he asked that the redistricting plan not split townships into different districts, if possible. At the least, he hoped the commission would try to keep school districts within the same county board district. When polling stations for two different precincts are located in the same school, “it’s a big hassle for the (poll) workers,” he said.
Christina Lirones, former Pittsfield Township clerk and treasurer, advocated for fewer commissioners than the current 11. She said she differed from her [Democratic] party on this point. The county board could function well with nine commissioners, she said, noting that she’s served on various boards with seven members that function quite well.
[In December 2010, the Washtenaw County Democratic Party passed a resolution in support of keeping the current number of districts. The resolution noted that when the county board had 15 commissioners, two of them were minorities – now, there's only one minority commissioner, Ronnie Peterson of District 6 in Ypsilanti. One of the resolution's whereas clauses states: "It is obvious that a reduction in the number of Board of Commissioners and a subsequent redistricting would very possibly eliminate the number of minorities on the Washtenaw Board of Commissioners." .pdf file of WCDP resolution]
Lirones reported that she’d spoken with a current county commissioner who said that with fewer districts, the rural districts would be even larger geographically, making them harder to represent. She said she’d hate to see that consideration as the main driver of the redistricting decision. Noting that in the past, District 7 – which covers Pittsfield Township – had previously included parts of other townships, Lirones said the larger district added diversity of perspectives. In concluding her remarks, she said that cost savings and a better functioning board are reasons to have fewer districts.
Dan Benefiel told the commission he’s lived in Ypsilanti Township for nearly 20 years, but just recently got involved in politics. When he ran as a Republican candidate for county commissioner last year, he said he knocked on about 10,000 doors in District 5. [That district is currently represented by Democrat Rolland Sizemore Jr.] People there have a lot of problems, Benefiel said, and they appreciate a close association with their commissioner. From his own association with county commissioners, he said he found them to be reputable individuals with concern for their constituents.
Benefiel said he didn’t want to impugn the reputation of anyone on the apportionment commission. He recalled that when he was in graduate school, he asked the chair of his department whether he would be evaluated objectively. The chair told him that everything was political. Since then, Benefiel said he’s learned that everything is political, but everything doesn’t have to be partisan. “Everyone in this county, everyone in this township has their eyes on what you do here,” he told the commission. He then asked the commission how they were selected to serve – what was the makeup of the commission based on? He also asked how the public can be assured that though the positions of the apportionment commissioners might be slightly political, they would not be partisan.
John Taylor of Dexter Township said he wanted to reiterate what he’d said at the previous public hearing – he hoped that the number of districts would stay the same, or increase slightly. Though there’s a lot to criticize about this country’s government, he said, one of the good things is that it’s representative. Some of that representation would be taken away if there were fewer commissioners, who would each have to represent a larger part of the population. Having more commissioners is one expense that the county should be willing to pay for, he said.
Wes Prater, a current county commissioner representing District 4, said he didn’t want to repeat what he’d said at the previous public hearing, noting that most of the speakers there had expressed preference for keeping the same number of districts, or increasing them. Since then he’s talked to several of his constituents, and they basically have the same view, he said. Of the 15 or so people he’s talked to about it in the past week, only one has supported reducing the number.
Referring to Lirones’ point about cost, Prater – a fellow Democrat – said that the expense of county commissioners is only a small percentage of the overall county budget. Cutting costs isn’t a good reason to reduce the number of districts, he said, especially since that makes it more difficult for citizens. He said he thinks of himself as a working commissioner. Since the last public hearing, he’s received two requests from citizens that he’s responding to – increasing the size of a district will make it more difficult to help constituents.
Lirones then asked to respond to Prater’s comments. She described her interactions with county staff as phenomenal. She said she’s had direct contact with staff in the clerk’s office, the treasurer’s office, and several departments, and has never needed her county commissioner to act as an intermediary. [District 7 covers Pittsfield Township, and is represented on the county board by Democrat Kristin Judge, who attended Saturday's public hearing.]
The county board sets the budget, Lirones said, but beyond that it has few statutory duties. Washtenaw County has an excellent administrator and staff who are extremely accessible, she said. While commissioners can be helpful, she added, they provide very little of the service that residents get from the county.
John Taylor said he wanted to offer a bit of a rebuttal. Because county commissioners do set budgets, he said, they’re making decisions about spending priorities and which departments to fund. With more districts, the size of each district is smaller and commissioners are more accessible – that’s important, because funding decisions will directly affect the services in those districts, he said. “The more representation, the better.”
Prater then took the floor again, saying he wanted to give some examples of the work that commissioners do. He reported that he, commissioner Kristin Judge and former commissioner Jessica Ping had initiated the process of getting the county to sponsor a drug discount card for residents. They were motivated after learning from the county’s public health department that roughly 11% of residents don’t have health care and prescription drug coverage, he said. [The program, offered through CVS/Caremark, was the subject of a heated debate among commissioners, but ultimately won approval by the board in May 2010.]
There was no statutory requirement to push for a program like this, Prater said, but obviously there’s a certain segment of the community that can benefit from it. He said that he personally has handed out about 8,000 discount cards since the program was adopted, and he continues to get calls about it.
As another example, Prater cited a situation in Ypsilanti Township on Burns Street, where two registered sex offenders live. Some senior citizens in that area are “having a fit,” Prater said, and are having trouble finding out what’s going on – they’re frustrated and need help. He said they need someone to turn to, and it’s an appropriate role for the county commissioner to help them.
Timothy King thanked Prater for mentioning some of the problems that township residents are facing. He said there are a lot of issues in the township and county. On his street, the sewer system is collapsing – something needs to be done about the county’s infrastructure, King said, noting that he’s sure there are similar problems in other areas.
Bill Bigler of Ann Arbor expressed disappointment that no redistricting plans had been proposed yet – he was hoping to be able to respond to the proposals. He urged the commission to keep township splits to a minimum.
Commissioner Response to Public Hearing
All five of the apportionment commissioners addressed issues raised during the public hearing.
Brian Mackie began by responding to Dan Benefiel, saying that whether or not people trust the apportionment commission is “really your choice, isn’t it?” Mackie said that in his view, the county board typically works by consensus, and is not extremely political. In the same way, he said, “I think this (apportionment) group will be nonpolitical in their decisions.”
Mackie recalled that when they went through this process 10 years ago, they also held three public hearings that were well-attended. People expressed a lot of different viewpoints, ranging from a desire to have fewer than five districts to more than 21 – neither of those options were legal, he pointed out. One person wanted to return to having a board of supervisors, which also isn’t legal, Mackie noted. [Prior to 1969, counties in Michigan were governed by a board of supervisors made up of one representative from each township and two or more persons from each city in the county.]
At the time, one argument for increasing the number of districts had been that the county board provides training for serving in higher office, Mackie recalled. Noting that two current state representatives had recently served on the county board, Mackie said he nonetheless does not think the board should be viewed as a proving ground for politicians. [He was referring to former county commissioners Mark Ouimet and Jeff Irwin, who were elected last fall to serve as state representatives in District 52 and 53, respectively.]
Catherine McClary addressed the question of how members of the apportionment commission were selected. Membership is set by state statute, she noted. The county treasurer is required to serve, she said, “otherwise, I would never ever volunteer for this job.”
Commenting on the difference between a political and partisan process, McClary said she served on the county commission when it had been a more even Democrat/Republican split. [Currently, the 11-member board consists of eight Democrat and three Republican commissioners.] While issues can be contentious, McClary said, generally the tensions are geographical rather than political – between urban and rural districts, for example. That’s not necessarily the case for state or Congressional districts, she noted, where politics plays more of a role. But for county redistricting, with a premium placed on districts of roughly-equal populations, “we’re constrained by the numbers,” she said.
Larry Kestenbaum recounted that he was a county commissioner 10 years ago, when redistricting reduced the number of seats from 15 to 11 – he decided not to run again, rather than compete against the other incumbent in that redrawn district. [That incumbent was Leah Gunn, who continues to serve on the county board.] Having served on a 15-member board, and having closely observed the 11-member board, he said, “there’s no question it works better at 11 than 15.” He allowed that part of the difference might be due to the personalities on the board.
There’s a lot of argument in favor of the status quo, Kestenbaum said, but that’s really not possible. Ann Arbor now accounts for about one-third of the county’s population, he noted, suggesting that the total number of districts should be divisible by three – creating possibly 9 districts, or 12. Kestenbaum said he’s putting together a plan for 12 districts that maintains the current districts roughly as they are now, but adds a new district for Scio Township. [Currently, parts of Scio Township are in several county board districts.] He said they’ll present specific plans at a later date – he didn’t think anyone had finished their proposals yet.
As for trusting the apportionment commission, Kestenbaum said that in addition to their roles on that group, all of them were elected by people in the county, and entrusted with other responsibilities. [The positions of clerk, prosecuting attorney and treasurer are elected countywide. The positions of Democratic and Republican party chairs are elected by their respective party membership.] If citizens of Washtenaw County trust them to carry out their other duties, he said, “I think it would follow that you trust us to do the redistricting.”
Kestenbaum also pointed out that in Washtenaw County, there’s no question of which party is in the majority. When redistricting is contentious, it’s usually because a change can cause a shift in political power – that’s not the case here, he said.
Cleveland Chandler spoke next, saying he was new to this process, but that he was working with Julia Roberts, the support staff hired for this project, to come up with a plan.
Echoing earlier comments of other commissioners, Mark Boonstra said none of them volunteered for this job – they were all conscripted. They hadn’t looked at any redistricting plans yet, but that would come soon, he said. Boonstra, the lone Republican on the commission, said there was no reason to think that there was inappropriate partisanship in the process.
Boonstra also commented that he had read something suggesting that he and Chandler had a disagreement at the previous public hearing on April 9. That’s not true at all, he said. The Democratic Party had recommended that the number of districts remain at 11, he said, but that was before they’d had a chance to look at the data. “I think we’re all on the same page and going in the same direction of trying to do this appropriately and within statutory requirements,” Boonstra said.
[A column by Joe Baublis, a member of the Washtenaw County Republican Committee who ran for county commissioner last year in District 11, was published on Friday, April 15 by Heritage Newspapers. In the column, Baublis describes the apportionment commission's April 9 public hearing in Pittsfield Township. In part, he writes: "The issue regarding the distinction between the fact finding of the Democrat Party chairman and the Republican Party chairman led to some heated debate. A member of the public asked how two men could look at the same facts and draw entirely different conclusions."
Draft minutes of that public hearing indicate that Chandler and Boonstra addressed the issue of population shifts and redistricting at the April 9 public hearing. According to draft minutes of that hearing, Chandler stated his preference for keeping the number of districts the same and not shifting boundaries, if there's not enough population shift to make a difference. Boonstra said they need to look at the data to see how the population changed within the current districts, and that he suspected there have been some changes.
The April 9 draft minutes indicate that Baublis, during public commentary at the end of the meeting, said he noticed a difference between the opinions of Boonstra and Chandler. Chandler responded by saying he has no problem working with Boonstra, and that the commission will work to come up with a consensus. According to the draft minutes, Boonstra again stated that he suspects there have been some population shifts, and that he didn't think Chandler was saying anything differently.]
Additional Public Commentary
An opportunity for additional public commentary was provided at the end of the meeting. Three people spoke.
Mary Lirones said she lives in Saline, which is part of one of the larger districts. [Saline is in District 3, represented by Republican commissioner Alicia Ping and covering the southwest portion of the county.] In talking with her friends and others, Lirones said, most people are amazed that they have a county commissioner, and certainly don’t know who that person is. None of them feel the need to contact their county commissioner, she said. Lirones said she’s in favor of reducing the number of districts, and certainly doesn’t want to see an increase.
Wes Prater commented on the advantages or disadvantages of having an even or odd number of districts. From his perspective, having an even number of commissioners isn’t a negative. If there are 20 commissioners, then you need support from 11 of them to get something passed, he noted. “I kind of like it,” he said. “It may be a bit weird, but I think it would work.”
Bill Emmerich of Ypsilanti Township, a member of the Washtenaw County Republican Committee who was a candidate for county commissioner last year in District 5, said he agreed with Prater. He also voiced support for reducing the number of districts.
Two additional meetings are scheduled: (1) a public hearing on Thursday, April 21 at 5:30 p.m. at Webster Township hall, 5665 Webster Church Road; and (2) on Thursday, April 28 at 5:30 p.m. at the county administration building’s lower-level conference room, 200 N. Main St., Ann Arbor.
The apportionment commission is expected to present redistricting plans and possibly select one at the April 28 meeting, which will include time for public commentary.
Resources for designing a redistricting plan – including population data and a blank county map – are available on the apportionment commission’s website.