Bloomington council president on local redistricting reform: “The commission has to be in place by 2021. It’s not far off.”

With its six city council districts, Bloomington is not unique among Indiana cities. But by year’s end it could be the only Indiana city that has a local commission established to handle the redrawing of council district boundaries.

This year’s city council president, Steve Volan, told The Square Beacon this week that one of his goals for 2020 is to establish an independent redistricting commission. It’s an idea he’s been working on for a couple of years, he said.

Under state statute, the city’s redistricting will be done in 2022, the second year after the decennial census.

But a crucial earlier step is the determination of precinct boundaries, which will be done by Monroe County commissioners in 2021. Volan wants the city redistricting commission to provide input into the precinct boundary process.

So Volan is planning to attend the community meeting hosted by the League of Women Voters this Sunday (Feb. 2) to present a draft proposal for a local redistricting commission. Volan’s idea for a local commission is modeled on the league’s proposal for a state commission that would handle General Assembly districts. Sunday’s LWV meeting starts at 3 p.m. at the Monroe County Public Library.

Proposed bills in this year’s General Assembly on redistricting reform don’t look like they’re headed anywhere. That was already apparent last Saturday at a legislative update hosted by the League of Women voters, when they were asked about the topic. District 62 state representative Jeff Ellington (R) said he didn’t see any bills on redistricting reform moving this in this year’s short session.

But Ellington issued a kind of challenge to local Bloomington redistricting reform advocates: “Show us on a local level.”

With a few years of thought already invested in the idea, Volan seems to have already risen to the challenge. The concept surfaced last fall at a city council rules committee meeting. At that meeting, Volan remarked that the biggest conflict of interest that city council members have is that they’re allowed to decide the boundaries of their council districts.

This week The Square Beacon checked in with Volan to get a preview of the proposal he’s planning to present at Sunday’s meeting.

Volan is proposing a seven- or nine-member commission to be made up of citizens, no elected officials. Even though the at-large councilmembers aren’t themselves affected by district boundary changes, Volan said their membership on a redistricting commission would be fraught with political conflicts.

Because the local commission is meant to be a demonstration to state legislators, good faith would mean having a balance of Democrats and Republicans on the commission, Volan said. He floated the idea of three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

Indiana University students should obviously be included, Volan said. Students could fill three out of nine commissioners based on population, he said, but it’s not clear that a commission with one-third student members would pass muster with non-students.

Appointments to the local redistricting commission would probably be made by the city council, he said, even though such appointments are normally split between the mayor and the council. Appointments made by only the council could be justified by the fact that redistricting is an issue that affects only the council, he said.

One downside to appointments made by the council is that councilmembers could be more likely to select redistricting commissioners who are inclined to keep the boundaries the same, Volan said.

One snag Volan sees for a proposal on the local level is that there’s currently no way to compel the city council to accept a recommendation from the redistricting commission. Under the League of Women Voters proposed model,  which Volan is translating to Bloomington’s local context, the Indiana Supreme Court plays a role in resolving disputes. If the redistricting commission and the state legislators don’t agree after a couple of iterations of a proposal by the commission and rejection by the legislature, then the matter is punted to the Supreme Court.

There is no local parallel to the Supreme Court, Volan said. So for a local redistricting commission to compel the city council to accept a boundary proposal would require an change in state law.

For his part, Volan said he’s not interested in establishing a redistricting commission and then not following its recommendation. That’s even if he’s drawn out of District 6, his existing district. District 6 is centrally located, completely internal to the city—it’s the only district that does not touch any non-city territory.

“I’ve said many times I fully expect to be replaced someday by a student. If redistricting changes the lines so that the dorms are their own district, I would likely be out of a job,” Volan said.

The need to get a redistricting commission established in 2020, even though the process doesn’t take place until 2022, stems from the fact that the first step after the decennial census is the drawing of precinct boundaries. That’s a process that will be done by county commissioners in 2021. Volan sees a city redistricting commission as the natural entity that could provide input to commissioners on precinct boundaries inside the city.

Precinct boundaries are important, because they’re the building blocks out of which council districts are built. If a coherent neighborhood is split by a precinct, it will be split by a district boundary. It’s possible to draw a district boundary in a way that splits a precinct, but there are a lot of  hoops to jump through, Volan said.

Volan recalled how the Prospect Hill neighborhood was split by a precinct boundary in the 2011 process. When the council started tackling the redistricting task in 2012, it was too late to change the precinct boundary.

Volan observed that as much as he disagreed with former councilmember Chris Sturbaum about issues in the unified development ordinance revision, he agreed with Sturbaum that Prospect Hill should be included in a single city council district.

If coherent neighborhoods want to make sure they’re not split into separate city council districts, they need to pay attention to the county’s precinct-drawing process in 2021, Volan said: “It starts with the precincts.”