Dan Thompson has been executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities for 22 years and has observed the process of redistricting several times. It has always worked the same way: First the municipalities redistrict, then the counties, then the state. “The traditional method of starting with the smaller, local districts is the perfectly sensible […]

Dan Thompson has been executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities for 22 years and has observed the process of redistricting several times. It has always worked the same way: First the municipalities redistrict, then the counties, then the state. “The traditional method of starting with the smaller, local districts is the perfectly sensible way to proceed and always has been,” he says. “I assume it’s been that way forever.”

Not this year. The Republican-controlled legislature has turned the process topsy-turvy, drawing lines of state legislative and federal congressional districts before local officials in Wisconsin have finished their process. That was a rude surprise to Thompson and the 582 cities and villages he represents. “We didn’t know this was coming,” he laments. “We weren’t consulted on any of this. It turns the process on its head.”

The whole goal of redistricting is to create new districts that take account of population changes over the last 10 years. As local officials are closest to the people, that’s where redistricting has always started. “It has been the past practice,” says Michael Keane of the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau. Three different state statutes stipulate the amount of time that municipalities and counties have to finish their redistricting, and that clock will still be running when the state legislature, as expected, passes its own redistricting plan this week.

“I think most cities are done with their redistricting, or have most of it done,” Thompson notes. “The deadline was in August.”

But they will have to start all over to accommodate the Republican legislators’ plan.

The problems this causes were spelled out in a letter to the legislature by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, chair of the Common Council’s Judiciary and Legislative Committee:

“As prescribed by state statute since 1971, the City of Milwaukee began its redistricting process in February, 2011 and completed that process Friday, July 8, 2011. During that process the city held four public hearings, participated in three public listening sessions, held two full-day public workshops for citizens to produce their own maps, and conducted countless informal briefings to individuals and interested citizen groups. The city cost of the dedicated labor hours and administrative expense total over $40,000. Passage of Senate Bill 150 would cost the city an additional $10,000 or more to make the retroactive changes mandated after the process by the state negating local authority to establish its boundaries.

Senate Bill 150 negates months of work, outright dismisses our open and transparent public hearing process, and wastes our taxpayer dollars.”

Stories covering the redistricting controversy in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have concentrated on how much more Republican the new districts will be, and Democrats complaints about this. But there is nothing new about redistricting lines being drawn to benefit incumbents; the only difference is that one party has all the power rather than two parties battling it out.

But what is quite new, in fact completely unprecedented, is a process that overturns precedent and ignores the statutory time allowance for local officials to do their redistricting, and instead substitutes a top-down process.  In Milwaukee, Barrett and Hamilton noted, the state legislative districts violate and split up 55 wards or 17 percent of the city. “You have arrogantly mandated artificial ward lines without regard to local concerns,” they charge.

Because elections can’t be done with two different sets of ward lines, this will force Milwaukee and every other of the 500-some municipalities that have finished their redistricting to start all over.

A ruling by the courts overturning this upside-down redistricting process would be quite likely, so the Republican legislature also plans to pass a law this week establishing a new rule whereby the state does the redistricting first. This is manifestly bad public policy for two reasons: It ignores five months of work done by local governments and changes the logical and long-established process of redistricting.

But Republicans fear they will lose control of the state senate in August as a result of the recall elections, and have seized the chance to redistrict while they can, even if it means running roughshod over long-established statutory law. This is raw politics, purely partisan legislation that both parties will be eager to overturn prior to 2020 because it establishes a nonsensical procedure for redistricting.    

The Buzz

-The proposed city streetcar runs from the train station on Fourth Street and St. Paul, east to Broadway and then North to Ogden and Farwell. Why not add two blocks, starting at Fourth and Michigan, so it connects to the Grand Avenue Mall?  

-A conservative group angry at a column by JS writer Dan Bice organized a protest, which failed miserably. Pressroom Buzz reports.

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