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A NEW VOICE FOR REFORM: In northern Indiana city of Goshen, mayor’s call leads to independent redistricting commission

Goshen has joined the very short list of Indiana cities that are turning to citizen commissions to take at least some of the politics out of redistricting.

The northern Indiana city of 35,000 will establish a commission to redraw its five city council election districts in response to population changes in the 2020 census. Final approval of the new districts will be up to the council, per Indiana law.

Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, a Democrat, proposed the idea last month. The council, with a 4-3 Republican majority, approved it March 7, albeit with changes from the mayor’s plan.

“I saw an opportunity, with the current council we have, to take a real stance — not only as a community but with the state — to say redistricting really can happen in a bipartisan manner,” said Stutsman, a 44-year-old in his second term as mayor.

The commission will have five voting members and four nonvoting members. Each of the five district council representatives, currently three Republicans and two Democrats, will appoint a a voting member. Nonvoting members will be the mayor; the city attorney, a Republican; and the two at-large council members, one Republican and one Democrat.

Stutsman said he wanted to demonstrate that bipartisan governance can work, at least at the local level and in a civic-minded city like Goshen. He said he has been discouraged to see political majorities use redistricting to preserve their advantage at the state and local level.

“I figured, if we could set a standard for bipartisan redistricting in Goshen, that would be heard by other communities and by the state,” he said. “I feel very strongly about that, especially in local politics. If we’re not working for everybody, we’re not doing our job.”

Stutsman’s original proposal would have gone to considerable length to keep political partisans off the commission, but the council majority made changes to that approach. In a lengthy and sometimes tense-sounding discussion, the council approved several amendments to the ordinance, some of them on party-line votes.

The mayor would have disqualified from the panel Republican or Democratic precinct officials and anyone who held or ran for a public office or was a party officer in the past 10 years. As approved by the council, the commission can include precinct officials, former party officers and people who held office more than four years ago.

Stutsman said he didn’t agree with all the changes but will accept them. “I am disappointed this didn’t come out differently,” he said, “but I am proud of the council and the relationship we have.”

The ordinance says the commission will recommend new city council districts by July, and the council will act on the recommendations by September and adopt new districts by Nov. 8 — well ahead of the 2023 election, when all Goshen elected offices will be on the ballot.

Stutsman said Goshen has seen significant demographic change since 2010, including continued growth of its Hispanic community, which accounts for more than one-fourth of the city’s population. Some 56% of students in Goshen Community Schools identify as Hispanic.

While redistricting reform advocates have been pushing Indianapolis to opt for an independent map-drawing commission, Goshen appears to be only the second Indiana city to do so, after Bloomington. Goshen’s government has a nearly even party split, but Bloomington is overwhelmingly Democratic; the mayor, clerk and all nine council members are Democrats.

Stutsman said he’s not aware of any other cities going the redistricting commission route. “I’ve heard of other mayors that would like to,” he said, “but they don’t think can get it past their council.” — Steve Hinnefeld