February 16, 2010 | Philadelphia Daily News | Original Article

City redistricting: 2010 census renews fight for a fair map

IT HAS BEEN almost 10 years since the last redistricting battle was slugged out in City Council, but the wounds are still raw.

That fight, which centered on the Latino composition of upper North Philly's 7th District and pitted the mayor against the Council president, dragged on so long that Council members went nearly five months without pay.

The final 10-district map featured three twisted, elongated districts that practically define gerrymandering. And during the period without pay, Councilman Rick Mariano took bribes to cover his bills - a decision that landed him in the clink.

"For my colleagues, every time you mention redistricting it's like a bad toothache," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who represents the 7th District.

Unsurprisingly, much of Council isn't exactly excited about revisiting the issue. But next spring, after the 2010 census, they'll have to redraw the district lines again based on the new population numbers.

The current districts were drawn so each would have about 150,000 residents - or about 10 percent of the city's population in 2000 - but population shifts inevitably change those numbers, forcing the decennial remap.

After the census numbers are released April 1, 2011, Council must pass a plan and get mayoral approval within six months. If it misses that deadline, Council members' pay will be withheld - as stated in the Home Rule Charter - which has happened the last two times.

Former Councilman Angel Ortiz, who served as an at-large member during the 1991 and 2001 redistricting debates, said members should buckle their seat belts.

"Rick Mariano threatened to throw me out the window last time," Ortiz said. "I think it's going to be a struggle. I think a lot of friendships on City Council may be frayed at the end of this."

Here are the key questions facing Council, as members look ahead to the next round of redistricting:


Latino representation

Is the city's Latino population properly represented?

During the last two rounds of redistricting, Latino activists pushed to have a dedicated district for the city's 100,000-plus Latino population - a group that mostly lived in a small section of North Philadelphia, but whose voting power was split among several Council districts.

"It was a struggle," Ortiz said. "Take a look at how the investments take place in this city. If you don't have a seat at the table, the interest of a big population, you get lost in the give and take."

The 2001 compromise gave the 7th District a 43 percent Latino population. But Ortiz said he'd still like to see the boundaries tweaked, saying he'd like to "get it more compact, move it down toward Girard [Avenue] where it should be, in order to make it a real Latino district."

Quinones-Sanchez noted that her election in 2007 - after Mariano went to prison - somewhat eases the pressure for a single Latino district. But she said she'd like to see her district become more compact and she is still concerned about the Latinos outside her borders who are not consolidated in one district.

"How do you ensure that the rest of the Latino population does not get split up [among] four or five districts?" she asked.

Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute of Latino Policy, said that Latino groups were already organizing nationally to make sure that their population is properly counted in the census, and gets a voice in redistricting conversations.

"We're anticipating that the census is going to show a dramatic increase in the size of the Latino population," Falcon said. "But the process is not a technical process, while the numbers may be there, it's always a challenge for Latinos to make the case."


Center City


Are three representatives better than one?

Three City Council members represent the residents of Center City - loosely defined as living between Spring Garden Street and Washington Avenue, between the Delaware and the Schuylkill.

As the residential population of Center City has grown over the years, some have questioned whether a dedicated Center City councilmanic district should be put in place.

Zack Stalberg, president of government watchdog Committee of Seventy, said that consolidating that population into one district is an idea worth debating.

"It definitely makes sense to talk about," he said. "Center City itself may be one place that is dense enough, has a common set of interests where it would make sense to talk about a Center City councilmanic district."

Popular wisdom says that the current representatives of Center City would be loathe to give up the campaign-donor power concentrated in the area.

But Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, said he thought the area might be better off with three Council members.

"I actually would argue against doing it. I really think the art of governance requires councilmen to balance conflicting points of view," said Levy, who explained that he thought having Council members representing parts of Center City and surrounding neighborhoods is a better system for Philadelphia.

Councilman Darrell Clarke, who represents parts of North Philadelphia and Center City, noted that he had been working in those neighborhoods for many years.

"I represent what I represent. I've been in various capacities working in those neighborhoods for decades," Clarke said.


Transparent process


Should the public see how the sausage is made?

The redistricting process is often criticized because lawmakers with a vested interest in winning re-election typically determine the boundaries.

"It's a very convoluted process and it's controlled by the people who are the objects of the change," Falcon said.

Two councilmanic districts - the 7th and the neighboring 5th centered on North Philly - are among the most gerrymandered, or politically manipulated, local districts in the nation, according to the geographic-data-analysis firm Avencia Inc.

The Committee of Seventy has teamed with Avencia to create an educational Web site about redistricting, which aims to shed light on problems with the process.

"The process is pretty opaque right now," Stalberg said. "At the very least we would hope that these discussions be held publicly so that people have a chance to see what horse trading is going on and who's representing what point of view and why. It should be more transparent."

Robert Cheetham, Avencia CEO, said he hoped their effort would spark conversation.

"Our overall objective is that there be discussion on the topic," Cheetham said.

Most state and local redistricting efforts are done by legislators. But some regions are reconsidering that practice. In 2008, California voters approved a plan to set up an independent redistricting panel of citizens that would redraw state legislative boundaries.

On the campaign trail, Mayor Nutter proposed setting up an independent citizens commission to develop a redistricting plan.