Back to the Drawing Board: Why Burlington's Redistricting Process Is Breaking Down
Map courtesy of Bill Morris/Geosprocket
Burlington’s first attempt to redraw its electoral map failed last year when a politically gridlocked city council punted the job of redistricting to a panel of mostly neighborhood volunteers. That group, which is more than six weeks into the job, doesn’t appear to be doing much better.
The Burlington Redistricting Committee doesn’t have a chairperson; members can’t even agree on whether there should be a chair. It has no governing rules, so it’s unclear whether a simple majority could approve an updated map of the city’s voting wards. The committee is being alternately described as “floundering” and “dysfunctional” — by its own members.
Frustrations over the panel’s dawdling pace became apparent at its most recent meeting on May 14 — and monopolized the first half of the two-hour session.
“We clearly need a bus driver,” declared Jim Holway, a committee member from Ward 4.
Like other cities, Burlington is mandated to redraw its ward boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes and comply with the principal of “one person, one vote.” The legislature redrew House and Senate districts last year.
But Burlington hasn’t gotten the job done — and the reason might have more to do with politics than math or mapmaking. The New North End, the most conservative part of the city, grew at a slower pace than the rest of Burlington between 2000 and 2010 and could lose a city council seat as a result of redistricting.
Based on 2010 census figures, residents of the two New North End wards — 4 and 7 — are over-represented on the council. Residents of Ward 1, meanwhile, are under-represented, largely because of more on-campus housing for University of Vermont undergraduates. Yes, they count.
Based on Burlington’s population, each of the current 14 city councilors should represent 3030 residents. In reality, such exact ratios are impossible to achieve.
The redistricting committee is thus seeking to redraw Burlington’s political map so that no ward’s makeup deviates more than 10 percent from that ideal norm. Assistant City Attorney Gene Bergman has warned the committee that federal courts have struck down redistricting plans that deviate by more than 10 percent.
At present, Ward 4’s ratio of councilors-to-residents deviates 16 percent from the ideal, while Ward 7 has a deviation of 11 percent, meaning both are over-represented on the council. Ward 1, meanwhile, is grossly under-represented, with its two councilors representing nearly 3800 residents each — a 25 percent departure from the ideal.
That leaves the city vulnerable to a lawsuit. In theory, any voter could sue the city, claiming its current ward configuration doesn’t adhere to the U.S. Constitution’s “equal protection” guarantee.
But rather than addressing these discrepancies squarely and expeditiously, the redistricting committee has been consumed by discussions of its composition and decision-making procedures. A few members are also openly critical of Cindy Cook, a professional mediator from Adamant who was hired to assist the committee.
Rachel Siegel, a Progressive who represents Ward 3 on both the city council and the redistricting committee, told Cook at the last meeting, “It’s not clear what your role is.”
Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak, a Ward 2 committee member, went further, saying in an interview that Cook has provided “no leadership and no accountability.” The city isn’t getting value for the $14,000 Cook is being paid to facilitate five committee meetings, Mulvaney-Stanak charges.
Cook defended her performance. Noting her 22 years’ experience, Cook said she is doing what her contract stipulates — and then some. She also confessed to feeling frustration of her own, saying that she typically spends eight hours preparing for a two-hour meeting, “but in this case, the amount of time I’ve spent is far beyond that.”
“I didn’t realize the lack of a chair was going to be such a dramatic issue,” Cook said at the May 14 meeting.
Committee member Elisa Nelson, from Ward 5, says the 14-member committee would prove unwieldy even if it had a designated chairperson, owing to the complicated mapping formulas and an unspoken set of political imperatives. But Holway calls the panel “dysfunctional” and blames Mayor Miro Weinberger for “an abdication of leadership.”
Weinberger was part of the first panel that tried to find a redistricting formula; it consisted of the mayor and four councilors. But Weinberger is not a member of the new Burlington Redistricting Committee, convened in response to criticism that the first panel had not adequately engaged the general public in its deliberations. The new panel consists of four city councilors — a Democrat, a Republican, a Progressive and an independent — and 10 members chosen by neighborhood planning assemblies.
Rejecting the contention that he’s missing in action as a leader, Weinberger said in an interview, “There was a reasonable concern in some places about the mayor imposing his vision of how the council should be elected.” Besides, he added, the current situation is not one he had favored. “The council chose the process that’s being pursued,” Weinberger noted. He said he thought the previous body had done its job adequately and that the council should have agreed “to put something to the voters at the last election” in March. “My opinion was a minority opinion,” Weinberger pointed out.
Cook was appointed as facilitator of the new panel at the urging of Council President Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5). But Cook was never intended to be “the driver of the bus,” Shannon said in an interview following the May 14 session. That chairperson position wasn’t created because “nobody trusts who the driver should be,” Shannon explained. “We needed to go with somebody unbiased” due to the tripartisan political dynamics underlying the committee’s deliberations, Shannon added.
Cook is doing as much as can reasonably be expected under these circumstances, Nelson argues. “A lot of us are trying to avoid anything to do with politics,” she says. “We’ve agreed we’re not going to care whether a current incumbent has to change wards” due to a redrawing of the council map, the Ward 5 representative adds.
But politics may be impossible to avoid in a city as politicized as Burlington. Like the council — which is made up of seven Democrats, four Progressives, two independents and one Republican — the redistricting committee reflects Burlington’s complicated partisan configurations. And members are tacitly vying to ensure that any new ward layout protects their party’s political interests.
At the same time, redistricting committee members don’t want to be seen as seeking selfish ends. The group was formed, after all, on the premise that regular Burlingtonians should have a big role in deciding who votes where.
The reconstituted committee did devote the entirety of a recent meeting to hearing comments from any member of the public. But that listening session does not appear to have smoothed the path to agreement. It’s not even clear how agreement can be reached — whether consensus is required, or whether a simple majority will suffice for a redistricting plan to be approved by the committee.
What can the group agree on? For one, that the Old North End and New North End should remain distinct from one another under any ward rearrangement. Another point of agreement: “Neighborhoods throughout the city must remain intact,” in the words of Ward 6 representative Andy Montroll. That principle wasn’t fully respected during the 1993 redistricting, when Lakeview Terrace was sliced off from the Old North End for inclusion in a newly created Ward 7 that otherwise covers part of the New North End.
These points of consensus would seem to rule out at least a couple of the eight proposed redistricting maps displayed on laptop computers during the committee’s recent meeting. But Shannon cautions, “Nothing’s off the table yet. There could be a variety of ways to draw the map that would be fair.”
Some committee members suggest the group is narrowing the mapping scenarios to two basic plans: one dividing the city into eight wards with two councilors from each; and another that redraws the map into either six or seven newly constituted wards. The eight-ward plan enables the New North End to retain its four councilors; the six- and seven-ward versions both include 13 councilors — and the New North End loses a seat.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Cook’s contract sets a deadline of June 15 for a plan to be presented to the city council. Citing some substantive steps that were taken at the most recent meeting, a few members say they’re hopeful. But Holway may be speaking for others in predicting that “we’re going to fail the public again.”
Almost everyone involved shares the view that the city council must formally adopt a redistricting plan before the end of 2013. That would put it before voters on the 2014 Town Meeting Day ballot. If approved then, the new ward layout would have to be ratified by the legislature, which must approve all municipal charter changes. Legislative approval sometime next year means that March 2015 would be the earliest a Burlington election could be conducted in accordance with new ward boundaries.
That’s halfway to the 2020 census — and the prospect of having to redistrict the city all over again.
Disclosure: Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak produces a podcast for Seven Days.