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In township hearings, city-county redistricting process is under way with familiar complaints

The following report from Indianapolis Recorder writer Tyler Fenwick was first published in the Recorder, and is shared through The Indiana Citizen redistricting reporting project.

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No, you’re not stuck in a time loop. Redistricting is happening again, this time locally with Indianapolis City-County Council districts, and the early stages of the process suggest it could play out in a similar fashion to what happened in 2021 at the state level.

Through two forums in Perry and Lawrence townships, where residents could talk about their concerns and priorities, there are already familiar themes.

There have been calls for an independent redistricting commission to draw the new map that the council would then vote on. Some find it confusing that a forum series, which will eventually make its way to all nine townships, is happening without any maps to comment on. (A new map will pass through the council like any other ordinance, so there eventually will be a review and hearing process.)

The city-county council has promised transparency.

“How do we get as many voices involved in this as we possibly can?” council President Vop Osili said after the forum in Lawrence Township on Jan. 25 (above). “Let’s get a broad perspective. Let’s find out those communities of interest.”

The council created a website, yourvoice2022.com, that has basic information about redistricting and a portal for online comments.

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Osili has shot down the idea of an independent redistricting commission, saying it’s the constitutional duty of the council to draw districts.

In that way, it’s not only the public comments that sound familiar to what lawmakers heard at the Statehouse last year, but also the defense of a process that many see as blatantly partisan. The difference is Republicans are in power in the General Assembly, and it’s Democrats who have a supermajority on the city-county council.

“It’s the same conversation,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a prominent advocate for an independent redistricting commission. “We really have the same scenario. It’s just the parties are switched.”

Common Cause Indiana created a model ahead of state-level redistricting called the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission. The commission included three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents.

“We’re really hoping to shift the conversation away from what redistricting is usually about,” Vaughn said, “which is a big old fight between Republicans and Democrats.”

The last two times the city-county council redrew districts, it sparked legal battles that ended in the Indiana Supreme Court. The court made its own map in 2003, and in 2014 it let a Republican-drawn map stand.

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The first two forums were better attended by councilors and other partisans than average citizens. The council contracted Engaging Solutions to lead the meetings and provide a report based on community feedback.

Osili hopes participation will grow throughout the series, which is scheduled to go through Feb. 8. He also acknowledged people may go to the meeting but then be reluctant to speak in front of everyone.

“The main thing is we’re creating this so that folks know that they can participate,” Osili said.

Joe Elsener, the county Republican chair, called the process disappointing and hypocritical.

“The whole thing seems to lack any substance,” he said. “Seems like a show.”

This type of political dance is to be expected, Vaughn said, because redistricting is traditionally about the minority party complaining about a lack of information and bad process, while the majority party says it will tend to everyone’s needs. After all, she said, redistricting is about power.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.