After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations and with a deadline approaching, Philadelphia residents as soon as Thursday could get their first glimpse of City Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s proposed map for new legislative districts.
Ten of Council’s members represent geographic districts, and seven are elected citywide. The city Home Rule Charter lays out a timeline for Council to approve new district maps after each census. Thursday’s meeting, the first of the new year, will be the next-to-last session that the maps could be introduced in time for the Feb. 12 deadline established by the charter.
Majority Leader Cherelle Parker is expected to introduce the redistricting legislation on behalf of Clarke, who represents the North Philadelphia-based 5th District and has met individually with the nine other district councilmembers to create a draft map, said a Council source who was not authorized to publicly discuss the plan.
The bill will then get scheduled for a public hearing before the Committee of the Whole, which includes all 17 members, before heading back to Council for final approval. The map could be amended in committee or on the Council floor.
It is a common, if frequently criticized, practice for lawmakers in legislatures across the country to hash out redistricting plans behind closed doors, where they can weigh political considerations such as whether the demographics of their new constituencies could help their reelections or if potential opponents live in their districts.
Clarke’s process for drawing a new map, however, differs from former Council President Anna C. Verna’s approach during the last round of redistricting in 2011, when a five-member ad hoc committee held public meetings and drafted a proposal.
But Verna’s more public process failed to produce a plan that could pass Council, and an alternative map negotiated by then-Councilmembers Jim Kenney and Frank DiCicco carried the day.
Patrick Christmas, policy director for the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said Council should make its process more transparent by having lawmakers publicly explain their choices in drawing the new lines and unveiling draft maps sooner to give residents enough time to weigh in before the deadline.
“These districts belong to the people. They don’t belong to the elected officials who draw them,” Christmas said. “It’s always a big problem when the people who are represented in those districts don’t have a meaningful opportunity to weigh in.”
Clarke’s spokesperson, Joe Grace, said residents will be able to weigh in on Clarke’s proposal when it is heard in committee.
“The public will have ample opportunity to have its voice heard on the plan — just as with any legislation introduced in City Council,” he said in a statement. “We anticipate robust public participation in that hearing.”
Compared with some states’ highly gerrymandered congressional districts — as well as with previous versions of the Council map — the current district boundaries are generally seen by good-government advocates as fair, with compact districts representing identifiable parts of the city and relatively few districts with blocks carved in or out for political reasons.
Councilmember Brian O’Neill’s 10th District, for instance, covers the Far Northeast, while Kenyatta Johnson’s 2nd District includes much of Southwest Philadelphia and the western half of South Philadelphia.
The Clarke proposal is expected to follow the current map in broad strokes, with tweaks needed to balance out population changes over the last decade.
The census revealed that two districts, as currently drawn, now have substantially fewer residents than the average of all 10 districts, meaning that they will have to absorb new neighborhoods: Cindy Bass’ 8th District, which includes Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods like Chestnut Hill and Germantown, and Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.’s 4th District, which stretches across the Schuylkill from Overbrook to Roxborough.
Meanwhile, two other districts that include fast-growing neighborhoods are overpopulated and will need to shrink geographically: Mark Squilla’s 1st District, stretching along the Delaware River from Pennsport to Port Richmond; and Clarke’s 5th District in central North Philadelphia, which includes Strawberry Mansion and the Temple University area.