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Can a commission lead redistricting in Indianapolis? Depends who you ask

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The scene at the City-County Building a little more than four years ago resembled something closer to a football game than a typical council meeting. It was November 2017, and a boisterous crowd was there to show its support for Proposition 285, a special resolution encouraging the Indiana General Assembly to adopt “comprehensive redistricting reform.”

It passed mostly along party lines with Democratic support.

Chief among the suggestions for state lawmakers was creating a citizen-led commission to oversee redistricting. The move didn’t sway the heavily Republican General Assembly to adopt a commission when lawmakers redrew state Senate, House of Representatives and congressional districts in 2021.

Calls for a redistricting commission continue, except now it’s city-county councilors on the receiving end.

Reform advocates appear to be in for more disappointment, with councilors pointing to state law to say the council alone is responsible for redistricting, but it’s not clear exactly what part of state law councilors and others are citing.

In general, the idea of a commission is to take redistricting out of lawmakers’ hands and put people who aren’t directly impacted in charge of the process.

“We’re doing the next best thing,” Councilor Zach Adamson said.

Adamson introduced the pro-commission resolution in 2017, saying at the time he’d be skeptical of the motivation of anyone who didn’t support the proposal. He’s not backtracking his support for a commission now, Adamson said, but the law governing redistricting is in the hands of state lawmakers.

Council President Vop Osili has said the same thing, calling it the council’s “statutory requirement.”

This is also the position of the mayor’s office.

“The redistricting process is governed by state law, which holds that the City-County Council is responsible for the drawing of new council districts,” spokesperson Mark Bode said in a statement.

To understand how redistricting works also requires an understanding of Unigov, the consolidation of the governments of Marion County and Indianapolis in 1970 by an act of the Indiana General Assembly.

According to state law, the city-county council “shall, by ordinance, divide the whole county” into 25 districts. It reads slightly differently for other cities, where the law says the legislative body “shall adopt an ordinance to divide the city” into five or six districts, depending on population.

But even Ice Miller, the law firm contracted to provide legal and technical services for the council in redistricting, said there is no legal distinction between the two statutes.

“The statutes do not use identical words, but the differences have no bearing on an independent commission,” the firm said in a statement provided through a council spokesperson, again leaving open the question of how state law might prevent Indianapolis from using a commission.

Julia Vaughn, one of the state’s most recognized proponents of a redistricting commission, said state law directs the council to adopt an ordinance that redraws districts, but there’s no limit on the process of drawing maps.

Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, said in an email the organization envisions a “politically balanced” citizens commission. The commission would study feedback from the council’s current public engagement campaign and get input on its own through a community mapping website.

The council would then start the formal ordinance process with a map from the commission.

There already appears to be precedent for a citizens commission in Bloomington, which has a Citizens’ Redistricting Advisory Commission. The commission will make a recommendation to the city council, which can approve or deny it with a majority vote.

There are nine commission members: three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

If the council rejects the first recommendation, it has to give a reason, and the commission gets another opportunity to make a recommendation.

It’s a level of transparency and citizen involvement many have asked for, but it seems this isn’t the redistricting cycle that will give it to them.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or email at tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

REMAINING REDISTRICTING FORUMS

Two redistricting forums scheduled for Feb. 2 and Feb. 3 have been postponed to Feb. 9 and Feb. 10 because of anticipated weather.

Warren Township
• 5:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 7
• Moorhead Community Resource Center, 8400 E 10th St.
• COVID-19 requirements: Masks must be worn at all times

Center Township
• 5:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 8
• Crispus Attucks High School, 1140 Doctor M.L.K. Jr. St.
• COVID-19 requirements: Masks must be worn at all times

Wayne Township
• 5:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 9
• Northwest Middle School, 5525 W. 34th St.
• COVID-19 requirements: Masks must be worn at all times

Pike Township
• 5:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 10
• Fay Biccard Glick Neighborhood Center Gymnasium, 2990 W. 71st St.
• COVID-19 requirements: Masks must be worn at all times

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