Washtenaw County apportionment commission meeting (May 11, 2011): Under a redistricting plan adopted on Wednesday, the number of Washtenaw County commissioners will drop from 11 to nine starting in 2013 – reverting back to the number of districts the county had in the 1980s. Ann Arbor will lose a district under the plan, and two current commissioners – Leah Gunn and Yousef Rabhi – will be in the same district, the new District 8.
The redistricting also puts incumbents Alicia Ping, a Republican, and Democrat Wes Prater into the same district – the new District 3, covering south and southwestern Washtenaw County, including the city of Saline. The plan also keeps Scio Township mostly in the same district, District 1. Previously the township had been fragmented into several districts.
The vote came after more than a month of meetings and an hour of discussion and public commentary on Wednesday, including some harsh words from the only Republican on the five-member commission, Mark Boonstra. Boonstra, chair of the Washtenaw County Republican Committee, charged that he’d been pressured to adopt a 12-district plan that he said favored the incumbents and put Republican contenders at a disadvantage. Of the current 11-member county board, only three commissioners are Republican.
The plan that Boonstra says he was pressured to accept was the first one voted down on Wednesday – supported only by county clerk Larry Kestenbaum, who proposed it, and Cleveland Chandler, chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. A second vote taken on a 9-district plan drawn by Boonstra was also defeated – Boonstra was the only one who voted in favor of it.
The final vote was for a 9-district plan drafted by county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie and revised with input from other Democrats on the apportionment commission, including Kestenbaum and county treasurer Catherine McClary. It gained unanimous support from the full commission. [.pdf file of adopted 9-district county map]
Redistricting occurs every 10 years, based on population changes determined by the U.S. census. Until this week, only two plans had been offered: one for 9 districts, another for 12. However, just hours before Wednesday’s 5:30 p.m. meeting, several new plans were submitted for consideration. In total, 11 plans were considered by the commission – for 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 21 districts. One resident during public commentary said he’d attended several previous meeting, and that it was shocking to arrive and see so many new plans on the day of the final vote.
All county commissioners are elected to two-year terms. The new districts will be used in next year’s elections, for commissioners who will take office in January 2013.
For additional background about the redistricting process, see Chronicle coverage: “No Decision Yet on County Redistricting,” “County Board Districts Likely to Change,” “Public Gives Input on County Redistricting,” “Washtenaw Redistricting Work Begins” and “County Clerk Outlines Redistricting Process.”
Initial Public Commentary
There were two opportunities for public commentary – the first one came at the start of Wednesday’s meeting. Among the group of a dozen or so people attending the meeting were four current county commissioners: Kristin Judge (D-District 7), Wes Prater (D-District 4), Yousef Rabhi (D-District 11) and Dan Smith (R-District 2).
Nancy Hedberg, Scio Township clerk, thanked commissioners for their hard work, and for taking her comments into consideration in their plans. [Scio Township is currently part of several county districts. Most of the proposed plans kept the township in only one or two districts.] While she liked one of the 9-district plans, Hedberg said she thought that one of the 12-district plans represented Scio the best, since it included part of Ann Arbor Township in the same district – the townships share similar issues, she said. However, if they go with the 12 districts, she added, “I would hope and pray that you never have a tie vote.”
Wes Prater, a York Township resident who currently represents District 4 on the county board of commissioners, said it looked like someone was trying to get rid of some of the commissioners: “That’s very evident here.” He said the apportionment commission had done a good job, and that the 12-district plan was by far the best one, as he’d indicated at previous meetings. It gives county commissioners about the right amount of population to represent. He said he didn’t know how they could handle a five-district plan, since the area for each district would be much larger. Prater said he gets calls from constituents all the time, and people are surprised when he tells them what’s available from the county, which he called an invisible government. While adding a new district, the 12-district plan would also keep the current commissioners in their current districts, he noted, adding “maybe that’s not what you want to do, but that’s OK.”
Bill Bigler of Ann Arbor asked whether the public would have another opportunity to address the apportionment commission. County clerk Larry Kestenbaum, the commission’s chair, said there would be additional public commentary, but it was slated at the end of the meeting – after a likely vote to adopt a plan. Catherine McClary, the county treasurer and a member of the apportionment commission, said she wouldn’t object to moving public commentary – allowing people to comment after the plans had been presented, but prior to the commission’s deliberations and vote. Other commissioners agreed to that change.
Sheie Scheie of Ann Arbor said he was surprised to see so many additional plans at this meeting – he wasn’t sure what was going on. [Sheie has filed nominating petitions with the city of Ann Arbor clerk's office and will be a Republican candidate for the city council seat in Ward 4, which is currently held by Democrat Marcia Higgins, an erstwhile Republican. ]
Kestenbaum read a handwritten letter from county commissioner Rob Turner, a Republican who represents District 1, which covers the west and northwest portion of the county. Turner felt that the plans with fewer districts resulted in districts that were too large for commissioners effectively to stay in contact with constituents, and that 21 districts would be too costly and make it difficult to get things done. He said he leaned toward a 10-district plan – one proposed by Boonstra – that would keep costs down.
McClary read an email that the commission had received from Dan Murray of Saline, who said he preferred the 9-district plan.
Apportionment Commissioner Commentary
Before the plans were presented, Mark Boonstra – a member of the apportionment commission, and chair of the Washtenaw County Republican Committee – read a statement that raised concerns over the redistricting process. [.pdf file of Boonstra's full statement]
“I think it’s time to say some things very candidly about this process,” Boonstra began. The commission is obliged by state statue and case law to consider specific factors when redistricting, he said, but one thing they are not to consider is partisan advantage. It’s an issue that he’s particularly sensitive to, he said, given that he’s the only Republican on the five-member commission, that only a third of the population in the county are Republicans, and that only three of the 11-member county board are Republicans.
He noted that he’s been interested in addressing the issue of township islands located within the city of Ann Arbor. [The issue of how to handle township islands has emerged at each of the apportionment commission's meetings. According to city of Ann Arbor planning staff, there are roughly 560 township properties located within the city. Most of the parcels are single- or two-family residential properties, or are vacant lots. The large majority of islands belong to Ann Arbor Township, followed by Scio Township, with a handful left in Pittsfield Township.]
The islands cause split precincts, he said, which is something they should try to avoid if possible. But he kept being told that it was impossible to resolve all the island issues. It took him a long time to get the data he requested, but he eventually did and was able to draw plans that did, in fact, resolve all the issues related to township islands and eliminate all split precincts, he said.
Boonstra noted that the first plan submitted several weeks ago by Larry Kestenbaum, for 12 districts, added a new district for Scio Township but kept all the current commissioners in their own districts – even though “three of them live within a stone’s throw of each other.” [He was referring to Alicia Ping (R-District 3), Wes Prater (D-District 4) and Kristin Judge (D-District 7).]
Even though the apportionment commission is not required to draw districts that would protect current incumbents, Boonstra said he was willing to support a 12-district plan with some modifications. The original plan unnecessarily split certain geographic areas to make one particular district likely to be more Democratic than it currently is – “and it just so happened to be the very district where a Republican defeated a Democratic incumbent in the last election,” he said. [This was a reference to District 2, in which Republican Dan Smith defeated Democrat incumbent Ken Schwartz in November 2010.]
He proposed revisions to the 12-district plan, but that plan was then revised again by Kestenbaum. This latest version, Boonstra said, split two precincts in York Township – for the purpose of boosting the Democratic incumbent [Wes Prater], keeping Prater’s residence in that district and making it even more difficult for Republicans to win that seat, he said. In addition, Boonstra contended that the revisions added one northern Ann Arbor precinct to the district that includes Ann Arbor Township district, making it more difficult for Republicans to win.
Boonstra said that over the past weekend, he learned that certain incumbent Democrats were upset with him and had vowed to “turn up the heat.” Then on Monday, he said, a new five-district plan was circulated among the apportionment commissioners. [That plan was drawn by Kestenbaum.] Boonstra said it would fail every test except for population variance, and seemed designed to send the message that he should play ball or risk losing Republican representation on the board of commissioners. “That is improper,” Boonstra said.
There’s no surer way to cost taxpayers a lot of money in attorney fees, he said, than to propose a plan that will be challenged in the state Court of Appeals. And addressing incumbent Democrats on the county board, he said they should make their statements during public commentary, but otherwise should “butt out.”
“We have a solemn duty to perform,” Boonstra said, “and it does not involve drawing district lines either to keep you in a safe district or to try to oust you from the board. Let us do our job.”
He noted that he had submitted four plans – for 8, 9, 10 and 11 districts – that all fully resolve the issues of township islands and split precincts. He encouraged serious consideration of those plans. [.pdf of Boonstra's 8-district plan] [.pdf of Boonstra's 9-district plan] [.pdf of Boonstra's 10-district plan] [.pdf of Boonstra's 11-district plan]
Cleveland Chandler, chair of the county’s Democratic Party, was the only other commissioner to weigh in before the formal presentation of the redistricting plans. He said he’d just received Boonstra’s four plans that morning. He noted that the last time the board of commissioners had nine districts, there were about 64,000 fewer residents in Washtenaw County. In addition, the road mileage in the county has increased from about 12,000 miles to roughly 16,000 miles – taking care of roads is one of the county’s more important jobs, he said. [Though the county board of commissioners appoints the Washtenaw County road commissioners, the road commission is a separate county entity.]
Chandler said that he supported the 12-district plan, because cutting the number of commissioners wouldn’t be in the best interest of the citizens.
Redistricting Plans: Presentation
Kestenbaum was the first to present his redistricting plans, starting with the 12-district plan that had undergone several revisions. He began by saying that Boonstra’s criticisms weren’t justified. [Though Boonstra did not identify people by name in his remarks, he later confirmed that his comments were directed at Kestenbaum and county commissioner Wes Prater.]
Kestenbaum said he’d tried to create smooth boundaries, because complicated boundaries are always subject to change. He noted that this plan did split several precincts, but stated that precincts will likely be redrawn anyway. [Kestenbaum had stated at previous meetings that the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti will likely see their precincts redrawn, as part of the redistricting process for state and congressional districts.]
He also said he believed the goal of putting all township islands in a district with their township can be pushed too far – islands are scattered throughout the city, he said, and some township voters might not want to be included in a district dominated by Ann Arbor.
Kestenbaum said he regretted that York Township was split, but that part of the goal was to keep Pittsfield Township intact. Boonstra had felt the original version disadvantaged Republicans, Kestenbaum said, but that was never his intent. At Boonstra’s suggestion, he had moved two urban precincts in southern Superior Township into the district with Ypsilanti Township.
Mackie asked how Kestenbaum’s plan affects the administration of elections – would it be more difficult for township clerks and the county clerk’s office? Kestenbaum said he thought the proposed changes would have only a minor impact.
Boonstra objected to the 12-district plan, which would lead to redrawing precincts in the city of Ann Arbor. Shouldn’t they be following precinct lines, rather than having precincts redrawn to fit their plan? Ideally, Kestenbaum said, but he didn’t believe it would be vulnerable to a legal challenge.
Mackie said the process this year had been more pleasant than the one he was involved with 10 years ago. At that time, he got a great deal of grief from incumbent commissioners, he said. Mackie praised Julia Roberts, who had been hired as support staff for the redistricting process – she knew the software, not the politicians, and she wasn’t biased, he said.
Mackie expressed regret that his 9-district plan would hurt his favorite commissioner, Wes Prater. He met Prater in 1978, when Mackie was a new assistant county prosecutor. Prater is the ideal public servant, Mackie said, and yet the 9-district plan isn’t kind to him. There’s nothing partisan about it – it just worked out that way, he said.
It wasn’t necessary to threaten lawsuits, Mackie said, referencing Boonstra’s commentary. He believed they’d adopt a plan that’s fair to everyone. As far as Republicans being in the minority, “I don’t know what to do about that,” he said. People live where they live.
Wrapping up, Mackie said he now preferred a revised version of his 9-district plan – labeled plan K. [This is the plan that was ultimately adopted.] It moves some precincts from southern Superior Township into the district with Ypsilanti Township, because those two areas have more in common. He noted that the plan’s population variance is 5.6%, which is lower than his original plan. [Districts are allowed up to an 11.9% population variance set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1971 case of Abate v. Mundt. While the goal is to create districts with roughly equal population, the court ruled that there can be up to an 11.9% variance from that “ideal” population.]
McClary also thanked Roberts as well as the staff of the county clerk’s office. She said she’d asked Mackie to preserve the student districts, and the 9-district plan K had achieved that goal more than the 12-district plan. Plan K also strengthens District 6 for minority representation, she said. McClary said she knew Boonstra was concerned about the township islands, but she couldn’t see her way clear to address that and still achieve other goals. She agreed with Mackie that they took more grief about the process 10 years ago. At that time, she had supported dropping down to five districts, but she no longer would support that. McClary thought the 9-district plan K made the most sense.
Chandler noted that this was the first time he’d been involved in this process. He felt like he’d been boxed in a bit. The Washtenaw County Democrats had passed a resolution in December 2010 – before he became chair of that group and before the redistricting process started – which called for preserving 11 districts to ensure minority representation. Actually, he said, his view is to find the best plan to represent all the citizens of the county. He said he isn’t even familiar with where the Republican parts of the county are located. Chandler said he thought nine commissioners wouldn’t be enough to adequately represent the increased population of the county.
Mackie said he’d been offended at a previous meeting when someone during public commentary had called for making sure the seat of one particular commissioner was preserved, because of minority representation. [The remarks had referred to the seat held by Ronnie Peterson, who represents District 6 in Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township. Peterson is black.] For one thing, Mackie said, there is another minority on the board – Conan Smith, the board’s chair, is the grandson of the city’s first black mayor, Al Wheeler, who was also the first African American professor of microbiology at the University of Michigan. Mackie also noted that countywide, voters have elected minorities – including judges [Cedric Simpson and Nancy Francis, a daughter of Al Wheeler] and the sheriff [Jerry Clayton].
The county board isn’t like most legislative bodies, Mackie said. Its main job is to set priorities through the budget. Prater has always understood that, he said. Mackie concluded by saying the 9-district plan does a better job at representing county citizens.
Kestenbaum mentioned that when the redistricting process started, his original intent had been to draw plans for the full range of options allowed by law – from five to 21 districts. He hadn’t been able to do that, he said, but he did draw up plans at the end of the range. A five-member board would be completely different, he said, and would require a lot more work from each commissioner. From a population variance standpoint, it’s the best plan – overall, it has less than a 1% variance from the ideal, he said.
Regarding the 21-district plan, Kestenbaum said he didn’t think there was any chance it would be adopted, but it was interesting to see.
Boonstra was the final apportionment commissioner to weigh in. It had been his first time to serve on the commission too, he said, and he’d gotten to know some people he hadn’t known before, and had come to like and respect them. He said he hadn’t come into the process with any particular plan in mind.
Regarding the other new plans, he said he’d only been sent the five-district plan, and he found it curious that he hadn’t been sent the other new plans. He noted that he never withdrew his 12-district plan – one that had made revisions to Kestenbaum’s original – but that it wasn’t included in their discussion, and hadn’t been posted on the wall with the other plans. It’s still on the apportionment commission’s website, he said. He preferred it to the one that Kestenbaum had revised again, which splits two York Township precincts “for no appropriate reason.”
Of the three proposed 9-district plans, Boonstra said he preferred plan K.
He then described his own four plans for 8, 9, 10 and 11 districts, noting how they addressed the problems with split precincts and township islands by creating districts that spanned the townships and city.
Additional Public Commentary
Bill Bigler said he had a lot of questions. He asked for clarification – why does it make elections a nightmare to have split precincts and township islands?
Nancy Hedberg, Scio Township’s clerk, gave an example to illustrate the issues. For the November 2010 election, she said, there were 21 ballot styles for 9 precincts in Scio. It’s challenging for election workers to figure out which ballot to give to each voter. It’s not just because Scio has been split into multiple county board districts – it’s also represented by more than one state legislative district, congressional district and school district. And none of the boundaries match, she noted. Even though there are still some splits in the proposed county redistricting plans, they are much better than what currently exists, she said.
Al Hegerich of Ann Arbor clarified that precincts in Ann Arbor for state legislative and congressional redistricts will likely be redrawn – Kestenbaum confirmed that was the case. Hegerich said that whatever they do, they should aim for the most democratically representative plan. He noted that they have a difficult task, adding “Have fun!”
Kristin Judge, a current county commissioner representing District 7 in Pittsfield Township, thanked the apportionment commission for their time and effort. She said she knew it was a thankless job.
Eric Sheie of Ann Arbor noted that he’s attended several of the redistricting meetings, and it was shocking to arrive and see so many new plans. The last couple of meetings the debate had been between two plans – for 9 or 12 districts. So it was mind-boggling to see these new plans. He said he’d previously favored the 12-district plan, but he sensed that the group was leaning toward nine districts. In that case, he hoped they’d choose the 9-district plan that eliminated township islands and had the lowest population variance.
Stan Watson of Pittsfield Township thanked the commission for their work. He favored the 9-district plan with the lowest variance and that dealt with the township islands.
Bigler asked Kestenbaum to explain why it’s better to have “simple” boundaries, even if they split precincts. Kestenbaum said it was important to think about how voters interact with boundaries. Though he acknowledged the example was outdated, he said to imagine a voter on election eve, squinting at a map in the Ann Arbor News and trying to figure out where you should vote. It’s also an issue for people trying to campaign or represent a district – there are different costs involved in creating complex district boundaries.
When Bigler noted that the information is on everyone’s voter registration card, Kestenbaum asked whether Bigler carried that card with him. Yes, Bigler said. Kestenbaum then asked everyone in the room whether they had their cards, and most people raised their hands. Kristin Judge observed that it was likely a skewed sampling, indicating that the people at the meeting were probably more politically active than most.
Yousef Rabhi, a county commissioner who represents District 11 in Ann Arbor, thanked the commission for the plans that keep students and young professionals generally in the same district – that will empower them to run for office, he said. Rabhi said he wasn’t overjoyed with all the plans, but he appreciated the opportunity for students who live in the eastern and southern parts of Ann Arbor to vote together – three of the plans do that, he said. He agreed with Mackie that a redistricting plan shouldn’t be drawn with one commissioner in mind.
Additional Public Commentary: Partisanship
Bigler raised the issue of partisan advantage in the redistricting process. There are three Republicans on the 11-member county board, or about a quarter of the board membership. However, Republicans account for about a third of the population in the county, he said. He asked the commission to comment on how the proposed plans would give partisan advantage one way or another.
McClary commented that she’s been involved in politics since
the early 1980s 1972 and you never know how voters are going to act. Kestenbaum agreed, saying that those who try to gerrymander often don’t get the results they want – voters are unpredictable. He said commissioners wouldn’t comment about the plans as they relate to partisan advantage, but that Bigler certainly could.
Bigler responded by saying he wasn’t familiar enough with the plans or the political demographics to know what impact the changes would have.
Sheie said it would be dangerous to redistrict with an eye toward partisan advantage, because it would be based on current conditions. But census data indicates that the population is shifting, he noted – in the coming years, the political demographics will likely change. It would be like”trying to hit a moving dartboard,” he said.
Mackie observed that when he was first elected in 1992, he was the first Democratic prosecuting attorney elected since 1918. Kestenbaum was the first Democratic county clerk elected since 1932.
Additional Public Commentary: Township Islands
Bigler said he still had unresolved questions, but that he’d support Boonstra’s 9-district plan, which cleans up the township islands and doesn’t split precincts.
Mackie noted that he used to live in a township island – his mother’s house was on South State Street, in an Ann Arbor Township island. (He said people would likely recognize the house – it’s now occupied by a palm reader, and has a sign with a large hand on it.) As you drive south down State Street, you go through Ann Arbor, then Pittsfield Township, then Ann Arbor Township, then back into Ann Arbor. The real solution is to “get rid of the damn islands,” he said – it’s a ridiculous way to do business. But local governments keep kicking that can down the road, he added. It needs to be resolved.
Rabhi said he was under the impression that the islands would eventually be annexed. McClary said there’s an agreement with Ann Arbor Township to annex islands as property changed hands, or when the homes needed to be connected to the city’s sewer system. And many islands are vacant land – Boonstra noted that in his redistricting plans, he wasn’t concerned with those properties.
Kestenbaum observed that there are far fewer township islands than there were 20 years ago – it’s getting better.
Redistricting Plans: The Vote
Following the final public commentary, three votes were taken in quick order, with no discussion.
Kestenbaum made a motion to approve his 12-district plan. It was rejected on a 2-3 vote, with support only from Chandler and Kestenbaum.
Boonstra than moved to approve his 9-district plan. It was defeated on a 1-4 vote – only Boonstra voted for it.
Mackie then moved to approve the third iteration of his original 9-district plan – plan K. It received unanimous support.
“I believe we’re done,” Kestenbaum declared.