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Redistricting reflections: Sending lessons into the future

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Posted on: February 9, 2023

BY HEATHER MARLÉNE ZADIG

As city residents process changes to ward boundaries from the recent redistricting, participants in the complex undertaking have been reflecting and recording lessons for the next round. At its Dec. 19, 2022, meeting, the Hyattsville City Council voted 10–1 to approve the final map, known as Council Requests Map (Option B), after the initial two proposed maps were rejected on Nov. 7, 2022, and sent back to the Hyattsville Redistricting Commission for revision. 

During the Nov. 21, 2022, council meeting, Councilmember Sam Denes (Ward 1) expressed dismay that councilmembers had requested changes to the commission’s proposed maps, saying it undermined the independent nature of the commission. 

Denes said in a recent email to the Hyattsville Life & Times (HL&T) that, although he felt the final map was “fundamentally a good map,” he opposed its adoption because he felt the process was “unnecessarily political,” though not partisan or nefarious.

Specific council requests included Council President Joseph Solomon (Ward 5) seeking a map that would align Wards 4 and 5 closer to the West Hyattsville-Queens Chapel Sector Plan, and Councilmember Emily Strab (Ward 2) asking that the Suffrage Point development stay in Ward 2.

In a memo to the city, the commission noted that it could not formally recommend either of the council requests maps, as the short timeline did not allow for public input on them before they were presented to the council. Additionally, both maps, the memo said, gave the appearance of the council interfering in a political way, regardless of motives.

“Appearances matter. Process matters,” Denes said at the Nov. 21, 2022, meeting.

Solomon disagreed. “I’ve been on this council for a long time, and I’ve seen how councils can play politics,” he said. “I do not see politics being played by any councilmember.” 

Denes replied, “We are a political body. When we get involved in this process, it becomes political.” Denes was the sole vote against the final map at the Dec. 19, 2022, meeting.

Redistricting commission member Andrew Sayer noted in his Nov. 21, 2022, presentation that although the commission felt it could only endorse one of the three final maps presented, the members believed all of the maps were reasonable. “There’s no way to avoid the changes in wards given the rapid and uneven growth in the city,” he said.

Sayer and other commission members have repeatedly said in public comments that they wished they’d had more time to prepare the maps and gather feedback. 

In an interview with the HL&T, Hyattsville Public Information Officer Cindy Zork said that several outside factors contributed to a truncated timeline. First, the pandemic delayed the census results, and then the city had to navigate a series of special elections to fill unexpected council vacancies.

“Ideally, they would have a longer window,” Zork said of the redistricting commission.

Following the Nov. 7, 2022, council meeting, a review of records from 2002 and 2012 revealed that those redistricting commissions used a stricter interpretation of the allowable 10% difference in ward populations than the current commission used. As a result, the current commission discarded its proposed Minimal Adjustments Map, which had a 16.6% variance between the largest and smallest wards. 

The remaining Growth Conscious Map had received more public support and also met the difference criteria, but the commission then had to find a way to accommodate council requests while keeping within the 10% difference threshold. All of this had to be completed in time to allow for citywide elections on May 9 (candidate registration begins Feb. 7). 

According to commission member Sayer, who is an applied mathematician, the language regarding population variance between wards wasn’t especially clear. 

“In our final report and a subsequent ‘lessons learned’ package, we recommended a watertight definition with a worked example of the population requirement,” to eliminate ambiguity, Sayer wrote in an email.

With a full 10 years between each redistricting process, the turnover of institutional knowledge and dramatic changes in technology contribute to the challenges of maintaining consistent practices across decades, Zork acknowledged.

“None of the commission members or staff liaisons were directly involved last time,” she noted.

Though much of the time crunch was unavoidable, city staff are leaving digital breadcrumbs for future commissions to help them learn from the mistakes and challenges faced this round, Zork said, including saving documents both on the city server and in the cloud. 

Despite the last-minute issues, the commission’s performance has been widely praised by those involved.

In a recent interview, Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2) said, “Of course there’s going to be a tug of war in this process, but the commission really did hit it out of the park.”

Schaible lamented that Ward 2 no longer included portions of West Hyattsville, adding that the new map also formalizes a split that was already psychological. Still, he acknowledged the new map’s appeal in terms of compactness and straighter lines.

In a January email, Councilmember Joanne Waszczak (Ward 1) echoed others’ praise for the commission and reiterated the value of the current commission’s after-action report.

As of press time, no other councilmembers had responded to requests for comment.

Sayer was optimistic about sending lessons to future redistricting commissions. “A lot has changed in terms of digital storage since 2002, and even since 2012,” he noted in an email, “so I am hopeful that our materials will be more readily available to 2032 than the older ones were to us.”

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