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WVPE News

St. Joseph County officials settle redistricting lawsuit, approve new maps

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Jennifer Weingart/WVPE News
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WVPE News

After accusations of gerrymandering and two months of litigation, the St. Joseph County Council and the Board of Commissioners have officially settled their redistricting lawsuit.

The two parties entered mediation last month, and an Elkhart County Superior Court judge approved a settlement agreement Wednesday.

"A great burden has been removed. It's a great sense of relief," Commissioners President Andy Kostielney said at a press conference Wednesday. "I think there's a lot of work that we need to do that this may have been standing in the way of."

Tensions around the county’s redistricting first arose in August when the all-Republican commissioners hired Indianapolis law firm Kroger, Gardis and Regas to help with the process. The firm is managed by former Republican state House Speaker Brian Bosma.

The commissioners proceeded to pass controversial maps in November that drew the city of South Bend into one heavily Democratic district and made the other two districts more Republican.

Since council districts have to be drawn within commissioner districts, the maps also would have changed the makeup of the County Council and threatened its 6 to 3 Democratic majority.

Democratic council members argued that the maps were illegal since they packed the majority of the county’s minority voters into one district. They hired Indianapolis-based law firm Ice Miller shortly after the commissioners passed their maps and filed a lawsuit against the commissioners at the end of last year.

The council passed its own three-map redistricting plan in December based on which parts of the lawsuit the court might uphold. Republican council members also proposed their own map drawn within the commissioners’ original plan.

Attorneys said Wednesday the settlement agreement ends the council members’ challenge to state law that would have changed the structure and election process for county commissioners and council members.

Because of its population, St. Joseph County has long been subject to a different redistricting and election process than almost all other Hoosier counties — residents only cast votes for the commissioner and council member in their designated district, while most counties vote for all commissioners and some council members in county-wide elections.

St. Joseph County also has a nine-member council, while most counties only have seven — four members elected in districts, and three elected at-large.

The council members’ lawsuit argued that since the county’s population changed in the 2020 census, it shouldn’t be subject to that different process.

The settlement agreement called for both parties to pass amended maps, which they did at respective meetings Tuesday.

"It's a shame that we needed this to get us to this compromise, but it did work — the process did work," Councilman Corey Noland said Wednesday. "At the end of the day, the decision was made to accept these maps wholeheartedly, both on the commissioners' side and the council's side."

The commissioners’ amended maps look fairly similar to the ones approved in November.

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Most of South Bend is still in one district represented by Derek Dieter, and Andy Kostielney now represents New Carlisle as well as Granger. Some of the rural townships included in Kostielney's under the original plan have now been moved to Deb Fleming's district.

Fleming still represents Mishawaka, but her district now also covers the entire southern part of the county.

“I think this speaks to a true compromise because in most mediations, after the agreement is made, no one's really happy” Kostielney said Wednesday. “Everyone thought they gave too much, and other folks though they didn't give enough, but I think this truly is a compromise.”

Only Dieter voted against the commissioners' maps, saying they gave Democrats an unfair advantage and that there hadn’t been enough transparency throughout the mediation process.

The County Council approved its amended maps at a special meeting Tuesday evening.

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St. Joseph County Council
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The council's amended maps, adopted Tuesday.

Since state law requires council districts to be drawn within commissioner districts, only two current County council members would have lived in District 2 under the commissioners' original plan, leaving an open seat. Additionally, four members would have had to compete for the three seats in District 3.

With the amended maps, all sitting council members will remain in their districts, and Noland said the new boundaries won't affect more than one or two potential candidates in upcoming elections.

The settlement agreement extends the filing deadline for local elections to noon on Friday, March 4.

If the new boundary lines changed a candidate’s district, they now have to withdraw and refile in the correct district. Candidates whose districts didn't change don’t need to refile.

As of Wednesday, county officials couldn't provide the cost of litigation for either party.

When asked why the council and commissioners couldn't reach an agreement before a lawsuit became necessary, Kostielney said only that "sometimes, things play out the way they need to play out."

This story has been updated.

Contact Gemma at gdicarlo@wvpe.org or follow her on Twitter at @gemma_dicarlo.

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