Committee to help city clerk redistrict for 2017 election

       In one of its last acts, the current City Council passed an ordinance March 26 authorizing a new “advisory committee” for the next time the city clerk resets council districts.
       Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO), told the elected body - six of whose nine members are about to be replaced as a result of the April 2 election - that the law “will set a legacy for your successors and you are the ones who most understand this issue [by having been in office to hear this year's redistricting concerns].”
       CONO had suggested the need for change last fall, after complaining to council that the redistricting divided some neighborhoods and failed to create at least one district with higher concentrations of minority voters. CONO's alternative map at that time would also have put the Westside completely in one district.
       According to John Nuwer, also of CONO, other groups supporting the ordinance are the Black/ Latino Coalition, the Citizens Project, Colorado Common Cause and the city's Diversity Forum.
       Based on ordinance language, the council-appointed committee will first be used in 2016, leading up to the 2017 election for council's district seats.
       The committee will hold its own public meetings (one in each district, with the clerk on hand), then prepare a preliminary report with its own recommended map.
       The ordinance also states that the committee's activities should be publicized, “through any means available [including] public meetings, e-town hall gatherings, electronic and print media and city website posts.”
       After that happens, the City Clerk will make the final call on how the lines are drawn - as was the case this time - after a citywide public hearing.
       The goal of the committee is “an engaged and informed electorate,” the ordinance notes in its “Legislative Declaration” portion. “While the City Charter requires that all election districts be contiguous and substantially equal in population, City Council recognizes and supports the consideration of additional factors as a necessary implementation of the Voting Rights Act [which outlaws voter discrimination]. City Council supports and encourages the preservation of racial and ethnic diversity, traditional neighborhoods and communities of interest.”
       City Clerk Sarah Johnson had cited similar considerations when she released the current map. Differences arose, she explained to City Council at a March 11 informal meeting, because “a lot of people had different ideas in mind [and] preconceived notions of what these districts would look like.”
       However, she has met since then with CONO and the other advisory-committee supporters, and “I'm fine with it [the ordinance],” she said.
       Citizen supporters of the committee were careful to praise Johnson's efforts for this election's redistricting while also urging the need for a change.
       “I think we're all very much in the city clerk's debt for having absolutely performed her duties as specified by ordinance,” Munger told council at one point. “But that process revealed some weaknesses the community was sensitive to, and I think it revealed weaknesses that you were sensitive to.”
       The city reconfigures the boundaries for district elections every four years, but this election was the first (based on a 2011 charter change approved by the public) in which the number of districts was increased from four to six.
       Council's March 26 vote on the ordinance was 6-2, with Scott Hente, Jan Martin, Val Snider, Merv Bennnett, Bernie Herpin and Brandy Williams in favor. Angela Dougan and Tim Leigh were opposed, with Lisa Czelatdko absent. All but the three at-large members (Martin, Snider and Bennett) will be off council after April 15.
       Dougan was opposed to the committee being set up when what's really needed, she said, is a redo of the entire charter. “We have the luxury of time” (before the next district election), she elaborated.
       Leigh had concerns about whether committee applicants could even be found in each district, based on the criteria that the process “shall strive for gender, racial, ethnic, age and geographic diversity.”
       Allowed to respond, Munger pointed to several ordinance supporters who were sitting together in the audience. “We have a row full of people, all of whom are pretty passionate that the public should be involved in this process,” he said.
       Under the ordinance, the selection process will start “at least 360 days prior” to the district election. City Council is instructed to choose one committee member from each district, plus one at-large. If no one is available from a district, then that position will remain unfilled, Wynetta Massey of the City Attorney's office clarified.
       The committee members' terms will expire when the committee submits its final report after the redistricting process is over (by law, 120 days before the election).
       “To avoid the appearance of impropriety,” the ordinance also states, prospective council candidates for that election are ineligible to serve on the committee.
       It is not known how much of an impact the committee's involvement will have on future district boundaries, nor specifically what the clerk might need to do differently. Discussion on the ordinance (March 11 as well as March 26) did not address in detail CONO's suggestion last fall for a minority-concentrated district, nor how a citywide map might be better drawn.
       Councilmember Jan Martin said she thinks that in general next time “we won't see a major carving out of separate districts like we did this year.”
       City Clerk Sarah Johnson offered a similar point of view, saying that the city's recent census figures have not shown a “tremendous shift” in “ethnicity.”
       Bob Loevy, a long-time area college professor (whose background includes being an aide in Congress when the Voting Rights Act passed and serving on the 2011 state redistricting committee), said council districts were created in the late 1960s to “represent more fully the minorities in Colorado Springs.”
       Speaking in support of the advisory-committee ordinance, he said it “provides for a greater airing of interests of both minorities and neighborhoods prior to the final proclamation by the city clerk.”
       Veronica Frias of the Diversity Forum told council she wants to make sure that “people who look like me” are represented. “We want to engage our communities earlier and give them multiple opportunities to provide that input,” she said.
       An ethnic/racial question had arisen during a press conference last September when Johnson released the preliminary redistricting map. James Tucker, owner of the African-American Voice newspaper, became upset when Johnson would not give a yes or no answer to his question as to whether the redistricting effort had consulted appropriate “experts” of various non-caucasian races.
       A neighborhood concern was also presented last fall by residents in the Mesa Road area, who questioned why a precinct just south of the road was put in District 3 while a district closer to Old Colorado City was put in District 1.

Westside Pioneer article