Bloomington’s city council passed an ordinance in mid-December 2020 to establish a redistricting advisory commission that is supposed to make recommendations on the drawing of new city council districts, based on results of the 2020 census.
The nine-member group was supposed to be seated at the start of 2021, which is the year following the decennial census.
Now some 15 months later, no members of the commission have been seated—because there are not enough applicants who meet the eligibility requirements.
Under state law, it is this year—the second year following the decennial census—when the city council districts are supposed to be redrawn. That’s only if their populations have become unbalanced based on the census numbers.
But there’s no question that Bloomington’s current city council districts are unbalanced after the 2022 census count, because they have a 35 percent variance. An acceptable variance is considered 10 percent.
Even though nine months of the year remain, the timeline for the redistricting commission’s work is already getting tight.
And after amending the 2020 ordinance in early February of this year, to reduce the redistricting commission to five members, the planned commission is still short of eligible applicants.
On Thursday at noon, the city council committee that is responsible for selecting the redistricting commission members met in the McCloskey Room at city hall to review how to proceed. Making up the committee, under Bloomington’s new ordinance, are the three at-large members, who are elected by voters citywide: Susan Sandberg, Jim Sims and Matt Flaherty.
Each of the five positions has specific eligibility requirements, and needs at least two eligible applicants—because a selection is supposed to be made between them by a coin flip.
One of the positions is supposed to be someone with no affiliation with either the Republican or Democratic Party.
Two positions are supposed to be Democrats—one who is not a student at Indiana University and another who is an IU student.
The other two positions are supposed to be Republicans—one who is not a student at Indiana University and another who is an IU student.
It’s that final category that so far lacks any eligible applicants. Other categories have the bare minimum of two applicants.
On Thursday, the three-person council committee settled on a mix of strategies to try to establish the five pools of two candidates from which a coin toss would determine the five members. Some of the applicants will be interviewed, if they were not already familiar to committee members. Other applicants won’t be interviewed based on some committee member’s previous experience with the person, or the strength of their written application.
To recruit Republican IU student applicants, Democratic Party activist Natalia Galvan has been trying to drum up interest among Republican students at IU, according to city council administrator/attorney Stephen Lucas. Galvan attended Thursday’s meeting by using a Zoom video-conference connection. She said she’d contacted Monroe County Republican Party chair Taylor Bryant, who is an IU student, and Bryant had put her in touch with Makenzie Binford, who is president of the College Republicans.
Part of the challenge is that potential redistricting commission members who meet the IU student requirement still might not satisfy some other requirements. Those include having voted as a Bloomington resident in at least one of the two most recent general elections. A freshman who moved to Bloomington in fall 2021 will not have had a chance to vote in a general election, yet.
Seniors who are graduating might not be available through the summer, when at least some of the work of the commission has to get done.
When it enacted the ordinance, the council saw it as essential to seat the redistricting advisory commission at the start of each year following the decennial census, which would have been January 2021. That’s because the building blocks for the city council districts are precincts, and the redrawing of precincts takes place in the year immediately following the decennial census.
Deciding on redrawn precincts is the responsibility of the county commissioners. The idea was that members of the city’s redistricting advisory commission should attend the meetings when precincts were drawn, so as to have some influence on those decisions. The chance to do that is past for this 10-year cycle.
Based on Thursday’s committee discussion, it could easily take until the end of April or longer to get the commission seated. That would leave just a few months for the commission to complete its work.
That’s because baked into the Bloomington ordinance timeline for redrawing the council districts is some back-and-forth between the advisory commission and the city council.
Under Indiana Code 36-4-6-3, the redistricting has to be done sometime during the second year following any decennial census. So the general timeline in the ordinance calls for certain events to take place in the second year following any decennial census.
First, the advisory commission has to report to the city council its recommended council districts no later than the first Wednesday in September. Before Nov. 1, the city council has to act to establish the recommended districts or else reject them. That gives the city council the better part of two months to act on the recommended districts.
If the city council rejects the advisory commission’s districts, then the commission has until Dec. 1 to consider the council’s reasons for the objection, and revise its recommended districts and send them back to the city council. So the advisory commission gets at least a month to revise the districts in light of the city council’s potential objections.
That leaves the city council another month until the end of second year following any decennial census to complete the redistricting under Indiana Code 36-4-6-3.
That appears to add up to about four months that are contemplated by Bloomington’s ordinance for a potential back-and-forth between the advisory commission and the city council about the recommended districts.
But this year, under Indiana’s state election code, a back-and-forth between the advisory commission and the city council could not take the roughly four months that are the logical consequence of the wording in Bloomington’s ordinance.
That’s because next year (2023) is a year when city councilmembers, city clerk and mayor are elected. And Indiana Code 3-11-1.5.32 says that “the legislative body of a municipality may not change the boundary of a district…after November 8 of the year preceding the year in which a municipal election is to be held…”
So the back-in-forth in Bloomington’s ordinance does not appear to have been written to accommodate the cycles when municipal elections are held immediately following the normal redistricting year.
That means this year the city council does not have until Dec. 31 to establish new council district boundaries. Under state law, the council would need to complete its redistricting by the end of the first week in November.
This year, a roughly four-month period of potential back-and-forth between the city council and the advisory commission would translate into an initial recommendation by the advisory commission in early July, about three months from now.
Bloomington’s city council established the redistricting advisory commission with the goal of trying to eliminate the conflict of interest that incumbent local lawmakers have, when they draw the district boundaries for parts of the city they can run to represent.
A bigger aspiration was to show the Indiana’s state Republican Party, which holds a decisive majority in the General Assembly, how the process of redistricting might be handled by a recommending body with some independence from lawmakers.
At its Dec. 16, 2020 meeting, when the city council voted unanimously to establish the redistricting advisory commission, councilmember Sandberg put it this way, “It should not be up to us to choose our voters.”
If additional applicants for Bloomington’s redistricting commission can’t be found soon, it won’t be up to the council committee to choose the commission members, because they won’t have an adequate number to choose from.
On Thursday, committee member Matt Flaherty floated the idea of amending the ordinance again, to relax the eligibility requirements, if that’s what it takes to seat the commission.