New City Wards for Next Decade Will be Established at Oct. 24 Council Meeting
Two maps are proposed, one by Evansville City Council, one by County Surveyor in process some feel has been partisan and without enough public input
The Evansville City Council is one week away from finalizing new city ward maps based on results from the 2020 census — and the process has proved to be contentious.
“We have had two maps filed and I believe we need to give the opportunity for council comment and public comment on both of these maps,” said Council President Zac Heronemus as he opened the hearing Monday, October 10.
Council is responsible for administering the creation of these new ward maps, and then voting on them to submit to the state by the end of the year.
Maps are redrawn to balance population changes revealed by the Census numbers. Maps must have less than a 10-percent deviation from equal populations within the wards.
There are six wards in Evansville and nine council members. Three members are at-large, meaning they represent the entire city. The last time the lines were redrawn was 2013, and Monday evening was the first of two public hearings on the redistricting proposed maps.
There are two maps submitted this year, and some members of the council have expressed concerns that the drawing of the maps have been partisan, such as Republican Ward 5 Council Member Justin Elpers, who wishes to leave his boundaries unchanged.
“…there's quite a bit of changes there,” he said. “If we could go back to the original lines, that’s what I would be in support of.”
County Surveyor Linda Freeman, who has worked on county maps for 40 years, used her time in public comment to call Heronemus out about this redistricting process. Namely, that she felt the public was not able to be involved in the process.
“They were supposed to facilitate at least two public forums … I didn't see that happen,” she said.
The council contracted with Iowa-based Mainstreet Communications last fall to help draw the new map. As part of their $25,000 contract, there were supposed to have been public forums before this.
Freeman is frustrated by this and she’s not alone. Elpers and at least one other council member feels the same. Elpers vented as the hearing opened, following a lengthy budget process in the same night.
“… we knew we're gonna have a long meeting night because of the budget. And then this is the first public hearing…”
To this, Heronemus said they’ve followed the letter of the law according to the city attorney. The next hearing will be on October 24, which is also the day of the vote to adopt.
Surveyor Freeman voluntarily drafted the second ward map under consideration, which was officially proposed by Council Member-at-Large Jonathan Weaver.
“Her maps make minimal changes,” said Elpers. “And she follows the rules and regulations when adjusting maps … when you redistrict, if you have minimal change, there's going to be a lot more buy-in.”
For Elpers and Freeman, the other problem was the use of Mainstreet Communications.
Their website displays their clientele, which are seemingly all campaigning Democrats. And to the ire of Freeman and Elpers, it shares which TV ads helped “blue candidates win in red districts.”
This city council has six democrats —including Heronemus — and three republicans — Elpers, Weaver and Ron Beane. Elpers and Weaver had voted against using this firm.
Linda Freeman is also a Republican, though she says this is immaterial.
“I think they're trying to stack the city council,” she said. “They're trying to work it so that one party or the other could be maybe more of a majority … they just want all the pie.”
Elpers said with the map proposed by Heronemus, he would lose some area of his ward that typically votes Republican, and pick up an area that has elected democrats.
Regarding using Mainstreet Communications, Heronemus said they have partisan services, and non-partisan services “… and this is one of those non partisan services.”
For the past several decades Freeman’s office has drafted the ward maps. Heronemus said he proposed Mainstreet Communications to avoid any politically-driven edits from Freeman.
“You have a trained professional that has done this in numerous communities across the nation,” Heronemus said of Mainstreet Communications. “The law states that City Council is responsible for this process.”
He said his map mainly adjusts three wards, balances population numbers and helps group communities by need. Council members Kaitlin Moore and Missy Mosby complimented him on the process.
Heronemus said the goal of the new maps was to make the wards more compact. It will change some voter precincts, but not until next year.
“The biggest thing is, her map has zero input from the nine member body that's responsible for creating these maps,” Heronemus said. “And I think ours does a better job of bringing communities of interests and neighborhoods of interest together with representation from whomever will be elected into those wards in this next upcoming election.”
Vicki Small with the League of Women Voters also spoke during public comment, raising concerns about communication and transparency. Heronemus thanked her for the input, and conceded he could have done better.
“Well, it's not too late,” said Small. “There's a hearing coming up.”
“You're right. And I'll be more prepared for you,” Heronemus said.
Elpers descibed this rollout as a “fiasco,” and said a compromise between both maps would help to repair it. Heronemus said there are parts of Freeman’s map he could consider using.
“What she proposed has given some thought to maybe some tweaks that could happen to the map,” he said.
Heronemus said interested residents can pick up a copy of the proposed map at the city clerk’s office.
As of Monday, Oct. 17, Elpers said there are no updates. He said a compromise would help insure unanimous passage. Heronemus said he’s confident in bi-partisan passage.