Boise City Council approves redistricting plan, but with changes to commissioner boundaries

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Boise City Council gave the green light to start creating a redistricting commission to draw district lines for the 2023 election, but with some changes to its original vision. 

The question of how the City of Boise should create its process to draw new district lines in a fair and equitable way dominated Tuesday night’s city council meeting. To comply with state law passed in 2020 requiring cities over 100,000 in population to divide into districts for city council races, the City of Boise brought forward an ordinance creating a redistricting commission appointed by Mayor Lauren McLean and approved by Boise City Council. 

[Election with few voters could mean nearly $1 billion in debt & interest for future residents]

Members of the public weighed in on various aspects of the proposal during Tuesday’s public hearing. The majority raised objections to the lack of power neighborhood associations will have in the process and how the city hoped to draw a geographic map to select commissioners from across the city. Several commenters also questioned the involvement of elected officials in approving the final map and those who will create it. 

In response to criticism during the public hearing, council members opted to change the map of the planning areas the city will use to determine where commissioners can live. Council also added a provision to the ordinance only allowing City Council to deny a map created by the commission if it violates city and state code by not having equal populations in each district or doesn’t draw contiguously shaped districts. This change prevents council from denying a legal map they dislike purely for political reasons. 

City Council Member Luci Willits was the only dissenting vote against the redistricting plan. She cast a no vote because she wanted the city to hold a second public hearing on the commission after they made changes, but other council members opted to push ahead and put the ordinance on the first reading calendar next week instead. 

How do you draw a map to draw a map?

The most significant discussion item was how the commissioners should be divided geographically across the city. 

The city’s original proposal, spearheaded by City Council President Pro Tem Holli Woodings, required the five redistricting commissioners to come from five districts across the city in order to ensure fair geographic representation. Her plan used the already created map of the city’s planning areas from the city’s comprehensive plan to create five areas. The ordinance required one commissioner to come from each of the five areas, which were made by combining the ten planning areas into pairs. 

But, just because the ten planning areas neatly combined into five geographic areas that sorted the city’s neighborhoods doesn’t mean residents felt the plan was equitable. Several residents testified against the plan noting tens of thousands of residents difference in population between the largest of the geographic areas (West Bench and Central Bench) and the smallest (Northwest and the Foothills.) They argued the difference in population between areas meant some residents would have more sway on the commission than other areas. 

A map of the city’s ten planning areas, which the city used to determine where the redistricting commissioners must live.

To fix this problem, Woodings suggested a reconfiguration of the pairing of the planning areas to make the populations more equitable between the different areas of the city McLean will choose commissioners from. The rest of the council members went along with this change, but city council members Jimmy Hallyburton, Patrick Bageant, and City Council President Elaine Clegg were not convinced forcing all of the commissioners to come from different neighborhoods would result in a fair map. 

“What we want are unbiased people to represent us to create a fair map,” Clegg said. “With geographic representation, if the Mayor or people who apply want to put one kind of person (on the commission), they can do that. Geographic representation doesn’t equal equitable representation.”

The new geographic areas for the commissioners to live will be:

  • West Bench
  • North End and East End, Northwest and Foothills
  • Central Bench and Downtown
  • Southwest and Airport
  • Southeast and Barber Valley

What about the neighborhood associations?

The issue of equitable populations in the map for the commissioner areas wasn’t the only problem residents had with the city’s redistricting plan. 

Karen Danley, a 2019 city council candidate and one of the architects behind the state legislation in 2020 and 2021 to require the districting process, told the council she felt they needed to go back to the drawing board on the proposal entirely. She said McLean and City Council should not be involved in any way with appointing commissioners or approving the final map. Instead, she proposed the presidents of the city’s Neighborhood Associations should select the commissioners. 

She also took issue with the ordinance’s policy to ban those who ran for office in the past five years from serving on the commission, which excludes her. Danley questioned the legality of the ban on recent candidates, nodding to the U.S Constitution’s protections against ex post facto law where residents can be charged with a crime they committed before the law changed to make the action illegal. 

“You are applying a retroactive requirement to politically active people who acted in good faith to serve their community without any knowledge this would be a consequence,” Danley said. 

Willits asked city staff to check on the legality of the policy, and they told the council later in the meeting that because serving on the city’s districting commission is not a criminal matter and doesn’t involve due process rights, it is legal for recent candidates to the disqualified from serving. 

Theresa Vawter took a different tact in her testimony. She argued that although Neighborhood Associations do represent Boiseans, they are not all equally as organized and not everyone is able to participate. 

“I think it’s great that we have the neighborhood associations, but keep in mind that some are more active than others,” she said. “There are people who are engaged with their neighbors, their kids’ school and their work and don’t have a lot of free time to be involved in their neighborhood association. That is my caution about getting too reliant on the neighborhood associations as the only representatives of those neighborhoods.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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