St. Joseph County Commissioners vote to advance redistricting plan despite public opposition
The St. Joseph County Commissioners voted 2 to 1 Tuesday to advance a redistricting plan that would make two of their districts more Republican and the third overwhelmingly Democratic.
The vote came after a vast majority of speakers during public comment criticized the proposed maps and said there’s been a lack of transparency in the process.
Two months ago, the all-Republican Commissioners voted to hire a law firm run by former Indiana house speaker Brian Bosma to help draw the maps for $35,000.
In response, the Democratically controlled County Council voted two weeks ago to hire their own law firm at a cost of $36,000.
On Tuesday, multiple public commenters said the proposed maps are gerrymandered and even racist because they pack Democratic and minority voters into a new South Bend-based District 2 while making the other two districts whiter and more Republican.
The new District 1 includes all of Granger and the mostly rural western portions of the county, and the new District 3 includes Mishawaka, Osceola and the rural areas directly south.
But Commissioners President Andy Kostielney said the new maps were not formed through “a political lens” and are actually more representative.
In developing the draft, he said they focused on making the three districts nearly equal in population and contiguous — unlike the current maps.
Kostielney also said the new districts don’t split townships, except for three precincts, and keep communities of interest together.
“South Bend will now have a clear, consistent voice when it comes to the board of commissioners moving forward, something they don’t have now,” Kostielney said. “In like fashion, the vast majority of Mishawaka is included in District 3, giving Mishawaka a significant voice in selecting the commissioner representing that district.”
But Drew Duncan disagreed.
“So, everybody smashed into that district saying, ‘Vote as a monolith, you’ll be heard in this district,’” he said during public comment. “We’ll be heard and promptly voted out, like today, right? Two to one, every time.”
And Pam Claeys said District 1 is not representative because it mixes two very different communities.
“Blatantly, District 1 goes from the high suburbs of Granger to the far southwest farmers,” Claeys said. “That is not like communities together, that is two different issues.”
Kostielney introduced the maps several weeks ago. They also move the house of Democratic challenger Jason Critchlow out of his district. But Kostielney unexpectedly announced last week that he’s not running for reelection in 2022.
He would be the only commissioner up for reelection that year.
“When Notre Dame political science professor Darren Davis discussed these proposed maps, he said ‘I don’t see anything really too egregious here,’” Kostielney said. “I can assure you that the goal was not to draw safe districts.”
Jason Piontek said that’s not reassuring.
“So that means it’s just a little bit egregious, which is disappointing,” Piontek said. “I ask that you go back to the drawing board.”
Commissioner Deb Fleming said she is “concerned” that some called the new map racist.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not racist’ and I don’t want to be like that, so if there’s something we can discuss to help so people feel happy and nice,” Fleming said. “How did that show up?”
Duncan said those calls of racism stem from the new District 2.
“I think where people are getting the racist connotation is that all of the Black folks have been smashed into this district,” Duncan said. “The two remaining seats will remain Republican, and we saw how the 2 to 1 plays out today.”
The maps also have implications for the County Council’s redistricting, as County Council districts must be within County Commissioner districts.
Under the proposal, only two of the current County Council members would live in District 2, leaving an open seat, and four would have to compete for the three seats in District 3.
In line with the critiques, two public commenters submitted their own draft map proposals to rounds of applause.
New Carlisle resident Dan Caruso said his proposal only moves four precincts into District 2 and keeps all three commissioners representing their current areas.
“The population is nearly equal, just as it was in Mr. Kostielney’s presentation,” Caruso said. “And all the commissioner and council incumbents remain in the same district.”
Ranjan Rohatgi, a mathematics and computer science professor at St. Mary’s College, said the commissioners should have asked the public to draw the maps and that the proposal should also have been approved by the County Council.
Due to a change in Indiana law this year, the commissioners no longer need the council’s approval to set their electoral maps.
Rohatgi, who served on this year’s Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, said people want competition. He submitted a proposal designed to promote those highly competitive elections.
“The three districts in the map I have here are within 300 people in population, better than the proposed maps, and each district — according to historical voting data I have access to — has razor-thin margins based on some recent elections,” Rohatgi said. “A map like this would leave us, the people of St. Joe County, being able to hold our elected officials accountable.”
Commissioner Derek Deiter, who would have to run in the new overwhelmingly Democratic District 2, voted against the maps.
He said there should be more public input, and that the commissioners should work with the County Council.
“I don’t think we did a very good job of ‘Hey folks, here’s the information,” Deiter said. “If we truly want to be transparent — which everybody says — if we truly want info to go out, this is a very important topic — we should have done more to push it.”
But Kostielney and Fleming voted to advance them.
The commissioners are set to have a final vote adopting the maps — potentially with changes — next week.
After the vote, Jesse Davis said he is ashamed that the commissioners “pushed this through.”
“I’m ashamed that you voted to pass this after so many people spoke against this and very few people spoke in favor,” Davis said. “It just shows the political pandering and the political games that so many of us people have noticed here in this community.”
Trina Robinson, president of the South Bend NAACP, called the vote “typical South Bend.”
“You do this song and dance as if you want the community’s input when your minds have already pretty much been made up,” Robinson said. “I just don’t understand how someone can just sit there and listen to tons and tons of people and totally ignore, just totally ignore, what is being said.”
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