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Indiana News

St. Joseph County residents criticize, praise redistricting plan in meeting before Tuesday vote

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Jennifer Weingart
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WVPE Public Radio

Last week, the all-Republican St. Joseph County Commissioners voted 2 to 1 to advance a redistricting plan that would make two of their districts more Republican and the third overwhelmingly Democratic.

County residents criticized the plan during a Monday night public meeting in South Bend’s Charles Martin Youth Center. But the commissioners are set to have a final vote on the maps Tuesday morning.

The meeting was held to gather more public input on the maps after criticism during last week’s hearing that there’s been a lack of transparency in the process.

Multiple County Council members attended, but only one County Commissioner did — Derek Dieter. He was the only commissioner to vote against advancing the maps last week.

“My perspective since the beginning of all this is we need more community input, we need more time for people to digest it,” Dieter said. “And I think the commissioners need to work with the council so we can come to a fair agreement on something that would be good for St. Joe County.”

Due to a change in Indiana law this year that only applies to St. Joseph County, the commissioners no longer need the council’s approval to set their electoral maps. In addition, County Council districts must be drawn within commissioner district boundaries.

Commissioners Andy Kostielney and Deb Fleming were invited to the Monday evening meeting but did not attend.

Two months ago, the commissioners voted to hire a law firm run by former Indiana house speaker Brian Bosma to help draw the maps, and the results were unveiled several weeks ago by Kostielney.

The new maps create a new, heavily minority and Democratic 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.

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Credit St. Joseph County Commissioners
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Even though Dieter would have to run in the newly heavily Democratic District 2, he said his opposition is not politically motivated.

“This isn’t a fair way to do redistricting for the entire county,” Dieter said. “However, this stuff works out, I’m still running. It was stacked against me when I won last time, it’ll be stacked against me again.”

About a third of those present at the Monday night meeting were in favor of the proposed maps, including Granger resident Amy Drake.

She said the proposal has cleaner lines and keeps communities of interest together. 

“These new maps are a major improvement,” Drake said. “With these new maps, South Bend will be united and have a bigger voice.”

Brian Jones, also of Granger, agreed.

“It appears that South Bend seems to be united under these maps,” Jones said. “There’s none of these little island cutouts.”

But the other two-thirds of the room was against the maps. Multiple speakers called the proposal a gerrymander that dilutes the power of the county’s Black voters by packing them into District 2.

Nancy Simon said every council member should have to represent Black voters.

“I need to make sure all my people are being represented in each district,” Simon said. “Once we start lumping South Bend together, there’s no money. No one's going to fight for the city of South Bend, because it will always be two against one.”

Mario Sims agreed.

“Come on — if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, then it’s a duck. That’s just the reality,” Sims said. “This is not the way we want to be known nationally, because it will draw a lawsuit. I can guarantee it.”

In addition, population changes in the 2020 census raise questions on the legality of drawing any maps.

Under current Indiana law, counties with a population between 250,000 and 270,000 have commissioners elected from three districts.

Effectively, that only meant St. Joseph County. But according to the 2020 U.S. Census, the county’s population is now 272,912.

That means legally, the three commissioners should instead run in county-wide, at-large elections, which would likely be more advantageous to Democrats.

The County Council would also change, dropping from nine to seven members — four elected from districts, and three elected at-large.

State lawmakers could pass a bill in the 2022 legislative session that prevents those changes by adjusting the population brackets, but Indiana law also mandates redistricting be completed by the end of this year.

After the meeting, County Council President Rafael Morton said the council reached out to the commissioners multiple times over redistricting, but only Dieter responded.

“If they solidify that vote tomorrow, then our only course of coming back and trying to change that decision would be very costly litigation,” Morton said. “And that’s one of the other reasons we’ve been asking for collaboration with commissioners and public input, and that has not happened.”

He also said that the population change could be a factor in a lawsuit if the map passes.

“These are all unknowns — we cannot predict the future — but that’s an interesting fact,” Morton said.

Council President Pro Tempore Diana Hess said she thought the commissioners would give Republicans an advantage through the redistricting process, but it was “more drastic” than she expected.

Hess, who is also the president of the St. Joseph County Democrats, said it is “quite possible” that the council brings a lawsuit depending on the outcome of the vote.

Three weeks ago, the council voted to hire law firm Ice Miller as consul on redistricting, and Hess said they will be meeting with their attorneys after the vote.

The commissioners are set to have a final vote on adopting the maps during their 10 a.m. meeting Tuesday morning.

You can attend virtually on Zoom or in-person by going to the fourth floor of the County-City building.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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