At the only public hearing on City Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s proposal to redraw Council’s district boundaries, Philadelphia residents on Wednesday criticized the secretive process he used to draw the map, called for the city to tackle the issue of “prison gerrymandering,” and raised questions about the lines drawn in Fishtown, Brewerytown, and Harrowgate.
“They do it behind closed doors. They give people two weeks and one public comment,” said Howard Fisher, a canvasser with the political group One PA. “That doesn’t sound democratic to me.”
After almost two hours of overwhelmingly negative feedback on the plan, a Council committee recessed at about noon Wednesday for one week without voting on or amending the proposal.
The delay means Council will have little time to spare before its Feb. 12 deadline imposed by the city Home Rule Charter. If Council fails to adopt a new map by then, the charter requires the city to withhold paychecks from lawmakers until they approve a new map.
Clarke said that Council will amend the plan, in part to deal with an issue concerning the unequal distribution of population across the 10 districts that could subject the map to a legal challenge.
Many residents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting said they were unhappy that Clarke only unveiled the map to the public last week after more than a month of behind-closed-doors talks, leaving little time for the public to digest and comment on the proposal before the hearing.
“We value your opinion. Believe it or not, we really do,” Clarke said at the end of the session. “We do hear what you say, and we have tried our best.”
In broad strokes, Clarke’s proposal is similar to the current Council map, with no district seeing significant geographic, demographic, or political change. But the boundaries were tweaked to account for population shifts, and some who spoke Wednesday questioned those choices.
Fishtown, for instance, is currently split into two Council districts. Under Clarke’s plan, it would be split into three, which Jon Geeting, president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, said would make it more difficult for residents to get help from their representatives.
“This is confusing for our neighbors,” Geeting said at the hearing. “Keep Fishtown together as one neighborhood.”
In a map of commendably compact districts that largely correspond to identifiable parts of the city, Clarke’s North Philadelphia-based 5th District has long been an exception, with an extension that juts east to capture a sliver of Fishtown that includes Clarke’s home.
Councilmember Mark Squilla’s 1st District, which runs along the Delaware River from Pennsport to Port Richmond, and Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s Kensington-based 7th District also include parts of Fishtown under Clarke’s plan.
At the hearing, speakers also questioned why Councilmember Jamie Gauthier’s West Philadelphia-based 3rd District, which currently is entirely west of the Schuylkill, picks up a small part of Brewerytown in North Philadelphia in Clarke’s proposal, and why Harrowgate in Lower Northeast Philadelphia moves from the 1st District to the 6th District.
Not all of the feedback was negative.
Christine Kennedy, executive director of the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District, applauded a shift in Clarke’s proposal that places the entire North Second Street business corridor in Squilla’s district, replacing the current split between Clarke’s and Squilla’s districts.
“We see the new map as being beneficial to our portion of Philadelphia at least,” Kennedy testified. “We think it will help streamline some responses and engagement.”
Many speakers urged Council to address prison gerrymandering, a cause gaining steam across the country. Advocates called for counting incarcerated people in the areas they are from, rather than the location of their prison, to prevent districts with correctional facilities from being overrepresented and communities with high levels of incarcerated people from being underrepresented.
There are two opportunities for Council to do this, and lawmakers can choose to pursue either or both options. First, the city could count Philadelphians in state prisons elsewhere in Pennsylvania in their Council districts. Second, Council could end its practice of counting the population of the State Road city jail complex in Lower Northeast Philadelphia as part of the 6th District, where it is located, and instead count them at their last used addresses.
“We clearly see that incarcerated individuals, primarily Black who come from North and Southwest Philly — these individuals have the right to be counted” in their home districts, said Melissa Robins, executive director of the group Northeast Against Racism. “These practices distort political representation and must be made right.”
Responding to similar comments, Clarke raised the possibility of Council taking the highly unusual step of redrawing the map between the once-a-decade redrawing spurred by the census.
Because there is not enough time to make those adjustments before Feb. 12, Clarke said Council could first approve an amended version of the current proposal before the deadline, and then revisit it later with adjusted data.