Census will reshape Peoria's council districts

// Published May 13, 2011

By Sonu Munshi
The Arizona Republic

It's time to pull out some sharpies.

Peoria has hired consultant National Demographics Corporation for $57,000 to help with its redistricting process. That will start once new census numbers are released by the February deadline.

After each census, congressional, legislative and local districts are redrawn to adjust for population numbers so that districts have roughly equal population. The redrawing of maps would lead to some residents 

That shift also means a change in political boundaries for council members, one or more of whom may even find themselves out of his or her current district

Residents impacted

"It's going to be very controversial," City Attorney Steve Kemp said.

He said the process has a political element to it and at the same time affects residents.

"They may have had a longtime relationship with a particular council member or sometimes people develop an identity in a particular district and they are no longer part of that," Kemp said.

Peoria plans to hold public meetings by January.

Kemp said based on estimated population growth - largely in the northern Peoria, Pine, Acacia, Palo Verde, Willow and Ironwood districts - should see their northern boundaries move further north. Palo Verde and Willow could see their southern boundaries move north.

The changes would apply in the 2012 council elections slated for Ironwood, represented by Councilman Dave Pearson, Willow district, represented by Councilwoman Joan Evans, and Mesquite district, represented by Cathy Carlat. Carlat's district, with 55,000 residents, is going to be cut in half.

"This is going to be a major shake-up in our city," Carlat said.

Residents, too, can suggest how to divvy up Peoria's estimated current population of about 160,000 into six districts. Each district will have between 26,000 and 27,000 residents, compared to 18,000 residents a decade ago.

Challenges ahead

Council members will send their preferred option to the U.S. Department of Justice, which makes the final decision.

The federal government places some caveats on the process. A district with a primarily minority population has to stay intact, so its voting power as a bloc remains. In Peoria, that district is Acacia.

In the last two decades, Kemp said Peoria has witnessed a regression of the minority Hispanic community in Acacia. He said that's because with a rise in income levels, many have moved into more-expensive homes outside the area. That would make it hard to fulfill the federal mandate.

"We literally will have streets where we're going to have one side of the street in one district and another side of the street in another district," Kemp said.

Communities of interest also have to be protected. These are neighborhoods with a strong identity such as Vistancia or Desert Harbor.

Each district's population has to also be within a 5 percent difference of each other.

Another challenge is a narrow point of the city between Bell and Beardsley roads. Peoria is only 1.25 miles wide at that point without natural landmarks.

Kemp said to bring three council districts through that narrow point to move up north would be a head-scratcher.

A warning to the sitting council from Kemp - the federal guidelines don't leave room for accommodation of keeping their district intact so council members don't find themselves out of it. That's a concern because council members are required to live in the district they represent.

Also, Maricopa County voting precinct boundaries could be significantly different from city boundaries. So it would be hard to avoid having residents in the same precinct in multiple council districts.

"In some cases preserving incumbents is going to be an extremely challenging issue," Kemp said.

Political ramifications

Political consultant Phillip Hubbard, who in 1990 was involved in legislative redistricting, said, "There are few things in politics as political as redistricting."

And for elected officials, it could mean they find themselves out of their own district.

"When the music stops, someone won't have a chair," Hubbard said.

Ask former Peoria Mayor Ken Forgia. As a councilman in the Mesquite district, he found himself ousted from his own district in 2001 and dumped into Ironwood after Westbrook Village, where he lived, shifted to Ironwood after the 2000 census.

Hubbard said in his experience he said there is typically some horse trading.

"It's common for an elected official to say, 'I'd be happy to give this one to you because the community never liked me anyway,' " Hubbard said.

The final boundaries are drawn by council members, under federal guidelines, despite the potential for conflict of interest.

Rob Richie, executive director of fairvote.org, said there are certain voters whom politicians want or would like to get rid of. Or, an incumbent may try to avoid running against someone else, so they carve out a district that doesn't include the potential opponent or put two elected officials in the same district.

But council members are accountable to voters and risk getting criticized if they put their own interests ahead of a credible redistricting process, Richie said.

Pearson said hiring a consultant can dampen the political aspects of the process.

"Left internally, you would see more pressure on staffers," he said.

And Hubbard said public participation in the process, if only from "political junkies," is vital.

"The reality is that only a few people participate in these things but those few who do, their opinion really can count," he said. "If a decision goes to court, for instance, their comments, which are public record, can make a difference."

Originally Published at: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/11/05/20101105peoria-redistricting.html#ixzz1MGTqMnBn