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In South Bend, a debate over racial gerrymandering and hiring of outside consultants in local redistricting

UPDATE: After an hourlong debate, the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday officially approved a redrawing of the districts from which the board’s three members will be elected for the next decade.

The 2-1 vote reflected division within the all-Republican board. Public testimony at the morning meeting and a community forum the night before similarly was split between those who described the decennial redistricting as an overdue fix for the current one and others who said it unfairly consolidates — and limits the impact of — minority populations and Democratic votes.

The key point of contention involved the new maps’ including all of the city of South Bend in a single commission district. Commission President Andrew Kostielney said that reflected an emphasis on keeping intact “communities of interest,” one of the redistricting criteria that the commission previously adopted.

As testimony began, Doug Kowalski, an attorney with the Indianapolis firm of Kroger, Gardis & Regas, presented an official resolution finding that the commission’s proposed maps complied with those criteria, while two alternative maps submitted by citizens of the county did not. The commission’s $35,000 contract with the law firm has itself become a point of contention; former Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, one of the state’s most prominent Republicans, is among its partners.

Commissioner Derek Dieter, a first-term Republican elected from South Bend, cast the only votes against the adoption of the resolution and a subsequent one approving the new maps.  The way that the maps are drawn is expected to weaken the Republican base from which Dieter was elected; he said his opposition centered as much on the way that they were being adopted.

“Did the commissioners have a meeting to find that the (citizen-submitted) maps do not meet those criteria?” he asked. “At the end of the day … there’s just a lot of things that have gone wrong. The public input wasn’t very good. I think we could have done a lot more on getting public input.”

“It just sets a bad precedent as to what we should be doing as elected officials,” Dieter added. “At the end of the day we should be doing a much better job. I think we failed the voters of St. Joseph County on this.”

Dieter moved to postpone the commission’s vote, but his motion died for lack of a second.

While most of the public testimony was similarly critical of the proposed maps, several speakers offered support.

Kelly Havens of Granger, a suburban community north of South Bend, said the redrawn maps offer better representation for the majority of county residents who live outside the bigger city’s limits.

“For the last 25 years,” she said, “that has been a consistent flaw in our redisticting maps . There is a group of people in South Bend who who have common interests. There is a group of 170,000 who do not share those interests.”

Kostielney, the commissioner who took the lead in redrawing the maps, defended them in casting his vote, again stressing that South Bend would no longer be divided among the three commission districts.

“I’ve heard many times that the city of South Bend doesn’t feel that it’s being represented by the Board of Commissioners,” he said, adding in reference to the new districts, “They’re clean. They’re compact as we can make them.”

The third commissioner, Deborah Fleming, said little during the debate, and spoke of her support for the new maps only after being prodded by Dieter. “I just want to do what’s best for our county,” she said, “and do it the right way.”

The vote followed a Monday evening meeting at a South Bend community center organized by critics of the redistricting plan. According to coverage by the South Bend Tribune, the meeting also drew supporters of the plan, 13 of whom testified, including speakers who praised the new maps as an improvement over those enacted in 2011.

According to the Tribune report, 11 at the meeting spoke against the proposed maps, including former county commissioner Mike Hamann – elected to that office as a Republican but now serving as county auditor as a Democrat – who said the new commission districts would create a “ghetto” that unfairly packs Democratic support into a single district, ensuring Republican wins in the other two for the next decade. Hamann also testified against the proposed maps at Tuesday’s meeting — The Indiana Citizen

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EARLIER: As the process of redistricting moves down from the state to local level in Indiana, the same claims of gerrymandering for political gain and a lack of transparency and public involvement are cropping up in communities around the state.

The latest case in point in South Bend: The St. Joseph County Commissioners (above) gave initial approval on Tuesday to new maps for the county’s three commission districts that many attending a public hearing before the vote decried as favoring Republicans and diluting the power of Black residents.

A final vote is scheduled on the maps (below), redrawn based on the 2020 Census results, for Tuesday, Nov. 16.

Almost all of those who spoke during Tuesday’s hearing opposed the maps and accused the Republican-controlled commission of failing to be open in the map drawing process. Several also criticized the commission for paying $35,000 to the law firm of former Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, to help draw the maps.

The criticisms of the St. Joseph County redistricting process are similar to what Hoosiers witnessed when the Republican-controlled state legislature pushed through maps for state legislative and U.S. House districts in just a few days this fall. Little public involvement occurred after the GOP released the preliminary maps, which were judged by one expert to heavily favor Republicans. The GOP already holds super majorities in the Indiana House and Senate.

Trina Robinson, president of the South Bend NAACP, called the St. Joseph County maps “blatant racism” and said she would be taking the matter to state NAACP officials to determine what action to take if the maps are approved without changes. “We cannot stand by and allow this to happen.”

Robinson and other speakers focused on the fact that the proposed map places all of South Bend into one district, as opposed to having some of it divided among the three current districts. They say Republicans are trying to “pack” the county’s Black population into one district, thereby reducing their influence county-wide and making it easier for Republicans to win the other two districts.

Republican County Commission President Andrew Kostielney argued that having South Bend in one district will give the city a stronger voice in the county rather than having those needs divided among the three districts.

But those in the audience were having none of that argument. “I feel like this is totally racist,” said Nancy Simon of South Bend, who is Black. “You just lumped all of the dark people together. I am so offended.”

Ranjan Rohatgi of South Bend, an assistant mathematics professor at Saint Mary’s College, was one of several who criticized the commission for not trying to involve the public in drawing the maps and not being open in the process, and proposed an alternative map. Rohatgi was a member of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, a group formed by advocacy groups in the state to show how a citizen-based map drawing process would work.

Information about the County Commissioners’ redistricting was published as a legal notice in local newspapers and an initial meeting about the map drawing received media coverage but many of those speaking said they were not aware of the process and said commissioners should have done more to notify and involve the public. Republican Commissioner Derek Dieter, who voted against the GOP plan, agreed with those criticisms.

Republican Commissioner Deborah Fleming joined Kostielney in voting for the maps and said she was concerned about the accusations of racism, hoping there was some way she could help people “feel happy.”

How the St. Joseph County Commission district maps are drawn will have a trickle-down impact on how the St. Joseph County Council redraws its districts, because those districts must stay within the county commission district boundaries. Democrats control the St. Joseph County Council and have criticized the county commission map proposal.

The county council has approved spending $36,000 to hire Indianapolis law firm of Ice Miller to help draw the county council district boundaries. That effort will be led by former Democratic House Speaker John Gregg and former Democratic state party chairman Kip Tew. — Bill Theobald

At left, current; at right, proposed St. Joseph County Commissioner districts.