With their public hearings on the upcoming redrawing of district lines under way, Democratic leaders of the Indianapolis City-County Council are hearing renewed calls for the independent redistricting commission that they urged upon their counterparts in the Republican-led Indiana General Assembly.
Council leaders have not agreed to the request. And while council policy director Brandon Herget would not say if the idea had been ruled out, he noted in an interview with The Indiana Citizen that the state legislature still has not changed the law requiring the council itself to redraw the districts. Council President Vop Osili did not respond to requests for comment.
The leadership of the council is promising an open and transparent process for redrawing council districts this year, but many of the details are still to come. For now, officials say they are focused on engaging the public and getting input.
A series of nine public hearings, one in each township in Marion County, is underway.
“That is a meaningful change from past redistricting processes and is a way to hear from constituents on the front end – their expectations, their thoughts on the process — before any ordinances are drafted,” Herget said.
The city needs to adopt new council districts to reflect population changes in the 2020 census. Democrats control 20 of 25 council seats, giving them control of the process.
Council leaders say they want to keep “communities of interest” together, and getting a better handle on what those communities look like in the 400-square-mile county is one goal of the hearings. “That’s exactly, I think, the type of feedback we’re hoping to get from our constituents,” Herget said.
The council has contracted with the Ice Miller law firm for $300,000 to provide legal and technical services. (Search contracts for No. 18879). The contract expires March 31, 2022 but could be extended, Herget said. The agreement subcontracts outreach activities to Engaging Solutions, a local firm that is conducting the hearings. Once those are done, Engaging Solutions will prepare a report for the council, which will be shared with the public.
Herget said council staff worked with community agencies to choose hearing sites that are accessible and near transit lines. They arranged for translation services: in Spanish at every hearing and Haitian Creole, Punjabi, Chin and American Sign Language at several.
Even so, only a few people spoke at the first two hearings, and nearly all were white men or women. Some called for the council to appoint an independent redistricting commission. Others, including several Republican councilmembers, said they suspected council Democrats weren’t being forthcoming about the work.
“I find this to be really disappointing,” Marion County GOP chairman Joe Elsner said at the Perry Township hearing. “It would be really helpful if we actually had maps to comment on.”
Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, said using an independent redistricting commission would avoid the conflict of interest of having elected officials choose their voters. She also said the council should provide mapping software so citizens can create and suggest new districts.
“I think that’s the best way for folks to have the very specific input that you heard here this evening,” she said in the Perry Township hearing. “It’s really most helpful if those suggestions can be made with actual maps.”
Herget, the council policy director, said the public will be able to weigh in on proposed maps before the council votes on them. “There will be plenty of opportunity for engagement and comment after any ordinance is drafted and shared publicly,” he said.
In 2017, the city-county council called on the Indiana General Assembly to adopt “comprehensive redistricting reform” and have a citizen-led commission draw congressional and state legislative districts. Shouldn’t the city-county council follow its own advice?
Herget said the 2017 resolution “called on the legislature to change state statute related to this process. That has not happened, and our council has followed state statute.”
There’s nothing in the law, however, to prevent local jurisdictions from having a citizen commission draw maps and following its advice. Monroe County had a bipartisan, four-member committee create county council election maps, which were approved by county commissioners. The Bloomington City Council says it will appoint a citizen redistricting commission but hasn’t yet done so.
Indianapolis officials have until November 2022 to approve districts and have them in place for 2023 elections. Between now and then, they will face decisions over how redistricting affects political balance, whether incumbents are drawn into the same districts and other factors.
Herget said the council leadership and staff are focused for now on public engagement. “We have not gotten to that second stage yet,” he said. — Steve Hinnefeld