Salted with Sharks

Judgment of Solomon: Reapportionment Splits Elberta and Frankfort

In Politics on May 13, 2011 at 10:54 am

In about fifty minutes last night at the government center, the Reapportionment Committee concluded their redistricting of the county to reflect population shifts over the past decade. The committee consists of Don Nugent, Republican Party chair; Jill Kimball, Benzie Democrats chair; Linda Wilson, county treasurer; Dawn Olney, county clerk; and county prosecutor John Daugherty. About fifteen members of the public also attended, including some county commissioners.

Wilson redistricting plan, distributed at the May 12 meeting

The adopted plan, created by Linda Wilson and presented for the first time at last night’s meeting, will be submitted to the state for review no later than June 6. The plan retains the 7 districts, something nearly unanimously desired by those in attendance at the public hearing on April 18. The plan splits Almira into two districts along Reynolds Road, and combines Frankfort and Crystal Lake into District 3, placing Elberta and Gilmore into District 4 along with Blaine, Joyfield, and Weldon. Currently Marcia Stobie serves Frankfort and Elberta/Gilmore, and Don Tanner serves Blaine, Joyfield, and Weldon, which means that if they choose to run again in the next election they’ll be competing for the same district.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years. “This happened to me before ten years ago,” said Don Tanner after the meeting, referring to his being reapportioned out of Gilmore Township, which he had served as commissioner for four years. By law, districts can’t vary by more than 12% in population, and must be contiguous, compact, and as nearly square as possible. Benzie County districts must be as close to the average population of 2,503 as possible.

Population grew in Almira Township, a portion of which has become a bedroom community for Traverse City, and shrank in Frankfort and Elberta in the past decade. The new census data came out in March, but few members of the committee knew precisely how the numbers broke down until quite recently. Jill Kimball, chair of the Benzie Democrats and the lone no vote on the plan, had only received the final numbers the night before last night’s meeting. She presented a counter plan that involved three splits in Almira and the splitting of a population of 500 from the southern portion of Inland Township, but which kept Elberta and Frankfort in the same district. Kimball asked during the meeting whether special permission would be required from the state for the Wilson plan’s district 3, Frankfort/Crystal Lake, which at 2,243 is significantly below threshold.

Don Nugent made a motion early on to vote on the Wilson plan. Mike Madden, a member of the public at the meeting, asked whether there would be any opportunity for public input on the plan. Madden said the public should have the opportunity to view the map before the vote.

Nugent mentioned that the public hearing on the 18th was held for public input and that it was generally agreed that everyone wanted to stick with 7 districts instead of 5 and that the townships should be kept as whole as possible, which the Wilson plan provided for. “I like things that are simple,” Nugent said.

Jill Kimball said it was necessary to hear what the public had to say on redistricting, and that the information on the population numbers and the map plan had not been made available to the public. “We saw [Don Nugent’s] plan at the public hearing but we were all standing over a table looking at it and it was hard to see what it actually meant.”

Some discussion followed in the committee about how Wilson’s plan might be distributed to the community and whether it was desirable to wait another two weeks for a vote. The meeting was then opened for public discussion. Linda Wilson made color copies of her plan and handed them out to those present.

Carl Noffsinger, president of the Gilmore Township board, requested more time to review the plan.

Mike Ross raised the question of how splitting Elberta (Gilmore) and Frankfort might affect the joint school system there and what other potential political divisions might arise.

Marcia Stobie, county commissioner, said that splitting Elberta and Frankfort was a problem because of the number of joint projects between the two entities, including cooperation on planning, and because of the historical and geographical connections between the two. “We share a bay,” Stobie said. “We’re doing a lot of really good things and we’re working together.”

Kathy Ralston, former chair of the Benzie Democrats and former chair of the Benzie County planning commission, questioned the committee’s procedure, asking why the vote had not taken place at the public hearing. Since there had been no vote, she’d expected there’d be another meeting and another public hearing with an opportunity to view the plan that was to be voted on.

Dawn Olney said that the law does not require a public hearing for redistricting, just an open meeting, that the committee members had been charged with completing the task, and that the public hearing on the 18th had served to gather public input. “We didn’t have to do that, but we felt the need to do that,” Olney said.

Linda Wilson remarked that she worked from the new numbers and map given to the committee by Olney to formulate her plan, and that the committee had been given all the information they needed. Jill Kimball said that while the committee had been given the information (about population and the proposed shape of districts, in Kimball’s case the night before the meeting) the public had not, and that everyone needed an opportunity to participate. Linda read the portion of law concerning redistricting committee procedure and the possibility of appeal. Kimball said, “That sounds like, ‘let’s put it through now, and let them challenge it later.’ ”

“That’s what the law allows,” Wilson said.

“Wouldn’t it be better to have the public satisfied with the plan and feel that they have been heard and had an opportunity to participate?” Kimball remarked.

Nugent said the committee had had the information on population for a month and that was enough time. “This fulfills all the requirements of keeping the units as whole as possible. I think it works fine and I don’t see what we’re going to gain by waiting two weeks for another meeting. Lake Ann is whole … I just think [the Wilson plan] makes a lot of sense.”

Linda Wilson said the public could have submitted alternate plans, and that she had in fact received one from a Mr. Zirkel at the committee’s last meeting. “I don’t have a problem if we want to have another meeting, but I don’t want to wait two weeks. We’ve got to get going,” she said, referring to the June 6 deadline for submitting the committee’s resolution to the state.

Kimball remarked that the public didn’t even know when the vote would be taking place and on what plan.

Linda Wilson asked how it would be possible to get the word out at this point. “We don’t have a budget for publication.”

Kimball said, “I think Marcia Stobie’s comment about breaking up the working relationship between Frankfort and Gilmore is something we definitely need to think about.”

After some more discussion of reverting to five districts, which would keep Almira whole but cause the loss of two commissioner positions, generally agreed to be a bad thing, Don Nugent called the question, and the vote proceeded, with Wilson’s plan approved four to one.

During final public comment, Emily Votruba of the Elberta Alert remarked that a member of the press was present, referring to herself, “And that’s a good way to get the word out, and it’s free.”

After the meeting, Kathy Ralston expressed her bafflement at the procedure. “I just didn’t know that’s what the law was for this process; this isn’t how it works in most other cases—planning, laws, ordinances… They should have more public input on redistricting rather than less. This is more important than most of the stuff they vote on and is going to have a much more lasting impact. You have to give the public something to look at before a vote.”

Marcia Stobie remarked that the vote would probably have turned out the same if delayed two weeks, with or without public input.

The Alert spoke with Frankfort city superintendent Josh Mills on the potential impact of the split on cooperation between Frankfort and Elberta. “We were split within my memory, with Frankfort, Crystal Lake, and Lake together, and Elberta with Gilmore and Blaine, and I honestly don’t think it’s going to affect how we grow together as a community. The services the county provides are distributed equally. It makes it more convenient to have one commissioner attending both sets of meetings, but it’s not like the commissioners are appropriating funds to their districts. You could have a situation where a commissioner would try to encourage more police patrol in their district, but our sheriff is a straight shooter and he’s going to ensure that our communities get service wherever it’s needed.”—Emily Votruba

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