Call it Dianne-mandering
Or Kent-mandering. Or maybe even Randy-mandering, though we’re not quite sure of that. Better yet, call it what it is: stupid and quite possibly illegal.
New county commissioner districts unveiled Monday are a direct assault on the City of Marion and Centre Township, the only township in the county to be gerrymandered into two districts so as to dilute its political impact.
Despite proclaiming itself to be based on certified populations — or, as commission documents put it, “ceritified” populations — the plan is based not on official census numbers, which traditionally are used for districting, but on 2017 estimates, produced not by counting residents but by statistically projecting expected migration, birth, and death rates.
Population estimates like these are and always have been notoriously inaccurate. The last time the county had an official count, it varied by a whopping 5.8 percent from the previous year’s estimate.
Using these guesstimates, the new districts are listed as ranging in size from 2,237 to 2,548. But that’s nothing compared to the hidden agenda in the new districting plan.
Surprise, surprise. The plan manages to preserve the districts of all three incumbent commissioners, even though one of them — Dianne Novak, who proposed the deal — lives just a few feet inside her new district, a stone’s throw across the street from Kent Becker’s district.
Even more troubling, the plan is crafted to divide Marion and Centre Township.Although they are of sufficient size to justify their own district, the new plan splits them into two so they can dominate neither.
Hillsboro, on the other hand, is guaranteed a majority in not one but two of the new districts. It will account for 68.8 percent of the residents of District 1 and 51.0 percent of the residents in District 4.
Marion, on the other hand, will account for just 40.1 percent of District 5 and 36.8 percent of District 2. The largest block of votes in District 3 will come from Peabody, but it will account for only 21.1 percent of that district.
Is it any surprise that Marion, whose commissioner lives 29 miles away, got short shrift, or that Novak, who supposedly represents Marion, consulted with officials from Hillsboro, outside her own district, before proposing the plan?
Despite the plan claiming to have each district with a majority of urban residents — from 54.7 percent to 77.0 percent — except in the case of the two Hillsboro districts, it divides those urban residents among different municipalities, pretty much guaranteeing a commission that will have three members from rural areas and two from the City of Hillsboro.
It isn’t as if this were the only way to divide the county. Special dispensation might have been needed to have one or more districts be at large, which many voters thought they were getting when they approved adding the districts. But special dispensation for that idea never was sought, even though similar dispensation may be needed for this plan because it divides an existing precinct — Centre Township — in two.
Elections will, as a result, cost more, but that’s nothing compared to the overall price voters will pay for reduced representation in all areas except Hillsboro and rural communities.
Adding insult to injury
Commissioners also voted 2-1, with Randy Dallke opposed, to ignore last year’s non-binding referendum, in which voters by an overwhelming margin of 55.3 percent decided against hiring a county administrator. In election terms, that’s halfway to a landslide against the plan.
Not only were past voters ignored and future voters in the Marion area marginalized, we all will have to pick up a huge tab for this. Pay and benefits for the new commissioners and the new administrator will cost taxpayers the equivalent of at least 1.03 mills a year. That means increased taxes or decreased services in other areas.
The idea of having a county administrator is nowhere near as inherently flawed as the districting plan but still ends up looking pretty silly, particularly because voters already had rejected it.
If commissioners would insist on hearing only from the administrator, not from any of the non-elected department heads reporting to him or her, it might work. But to date commissioners have been insistent on micro-managing virtually every department, and all this plan will do is add another level of expensive bureaucracy and potential for discord at meetings that already have more than enough of both.
Individual commissioners may be simply trying to do the best they can. They may be getting duped by others with hidden agendas they cannot detect. If so, we feel sorry for them. But what’s really at stake here is democracy. Commissioners flouted it like tinhorn dictators Monday. Before it’s too late, it’s time for voters to let them know that they have become the problem, not the solution, in Marion County.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Dec. 13, 2018