Our fellow Philadelphians could certainly be forgiven for engaging in a bit of eye-rolling as City Council prepares for its once-a-decade round of redistricting.
In one of the quirks of the City Charter, councilmembers have a distinct incentive for completing the process in a timely manner — their paychecks. If Council fails to redraw the legislative maps that define representation in the city by a specified deadline, which for this cycle is March 12, members won’t be paid. With that kind of motivation, it would be hard to imagine that any legislative body would even think of missing the deadline. Except — and here’s where the eye-rolling comes in — City Council has done exactly that. Twice in the last 30 years, in 1991 and 2001.
In 2011, Council met the deadline, but critics of that year’s process questioned whether the public had been given sufficient opportunities to weigh in, and broader forms of engagement such as community surveys were not utilized.
And while the City Charter imposes a rigid deadline for drawing the new districts, it doesn’t have a strict mandate that councilmembers must include anyone else in the decision-making. That means the most important discussions about the city’s legislative boundaries largely occur in the absence of public input and scrutiny. So far this year, Council has scheduled no public meetings nor has it sought feedback from everyday Philadelphians.
As far as what’s happening behind closed doors, the public indications from members of Council are pointing to a relatively smooth process, without the animosity that’s marked past cycles.
At its core, redistricting aims to divide the city’s population into 10 districts with a roughly equal number of residents. Skirmishes have erupted in Council when the demographics of certain districts have changed in the decade between two censuses, as in 2001, when the borders of the 7th District were reconfigured in what neighborhood activists said was an attempt to dilute the political power of the growing numbers of Latino voters in North Philadelphia and Kensington.
Because the stakes surrounding redistricting are so high, transparency in the process is crucial. Redrawing legislative boundaries affects more than just who represents the residents of a particular district. Given the proliferation of district-specific zoning and the broad powers granted to councilmembers, redistricting has an effect on taxes, spending, business plans, development, zoning regulations, and a host of other issues in neighborhoods across the city.
It is hardly uncommon for legislative bodies here or elsewhere to engage in opaque redistricting practices. Still, the process of having City Council drawing districts for the benefit of City Council is far beneath the standards we strive to set for ourselves as a community.
While it is too late to change the way our districts are drawn for the 2023 elections, it’s essential that Council do better than the example set in 2011 by soliciting public input at the start of the process, and across multiple fronts. This can be done by taking steps such as asking residents to propose their own district boundaries using free, online mapping tools; holding multiple public forums across the city, and requesting formal public input from citywide advocacy groups and others.
These steps don’t just check a good-government box, they can help inform Council about the priorities that residents have for redistricting, including the way that neighborhoods have changed over the last decade.
Keeping things mostly the same might work well for Council’s incumbents, but — whether they serve in Congress, the General Assembly, or any other body, no legislator should be able to customize their own constituency.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg have taken a step, albeit a meager one, toward reducing member influence over redistricting with the creation of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission; that panel includes a chair from outside the political system.
Good-government groups like the Committee of Seventy have called for the creation of independent panels to lead redistricting efforts. And this board has long supported greater public participation in the redistricting process at both the local and state level.
City Council’s supporters can accurately claim that the current map crafted in 2011 is an improvement over past maps. But while better results are always welcome, redistricting is a topic where process matters too. No matter what the redrawn map looks like, every Philadelphian deserves a chance to weigh in.