Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Slicing and Dicing Richardson

This is the most passionate I've seen people. My email is blowing up, my phone is blowing up.
What could be causing such a commotion? It was a public hearing of Richardson's Council District Boundary Commission (aka the City Planning Commission, or CPC). Every ten years, with the new census, Richardson redraws its council district boundaries to ensure balance in the population of each district. This public hearing was for receiving comments related to the three district boundary options under consideration by the CPC.

After the jump, what the passion is all about.

Richardson divides itself into four districts, with four of the city council members being required to reside in four separate districts. The other three members of the seven-person council can reside anywhere in the city. Regardless of which district a council member resides in, all are elected at large, so each council member represents the whole city and is accountable to all parts of Richardson.

The Wheel examined Richardson's existing district boundaries a few months ago, when there was a call (by some) for single member districts, meaning council members would be elected only by members of a single district, not at large. Here was my conclusion then:

There's really not that much difference in the averages from district to district (look at those median property values again) to expect vastly different voter careabouts. Moreover, you can find aging neighborhoods everywhere in Richardson. Even in northeast Richardson's District 2, almost half of the houses are 20 to 30 years old or more. ... There's no evidence that switching to a system of single member districts would elect a city council any more sensitive to this issue than our current council is.
Source: The Wheel.
So, given the fact that all council members are elected at large and that there isn't much racial or socio-economic difference across Richardson, at least compared to a city like Dallas, why would some be passionate over redistricting? We have to look at the proposed options being considered to answer that question.

There are two arguments, one in favor of option #1 (let's call it the quadrant option, or maybe the status quo option), and the other in favor of option #2 (let's call this one the vertical district option, or maybe the "shake 'em up" option). Option #3 is a little of both and seems to arouse few passions, for or against, from anyone (let's call it the "meh" option).

In northwest Richardson, residents of both the Cottonwood Creek Civic Association and the Canyon Creek Neighborhood Association object to any plan that puts their two neighborhoods in different districts. They argue that the two neighborhoods have the same issues and have a history of working together. They feel that any separation would tend to disrupt that relationship. As one speaker said, "We are one neighborhood. To separate them in any way, it's a big deal, it's a really big deal." They favor option #1 (with northwest Richardson as a quadrant).

In southwest Richardson, a resident of the Richardson Heights Neighborhood Association said he "adamantly" opposes the option that creates (keeps?) a district limited entirely to the southwest quadrant of Richardson. His argument is that this would create a district segregated by income, housing type, traditional representation, and future development. He favors option #2 that would create three vertical districts that stretch from Richardson's southern city limit all the way to Richardson's northern city limit (four if you count the Richardson panhandle as stretching from southern city limit to northern city limit). He argues that this would increase the number of council members who would have southern Richardson as part of the district they reside in, and thereby increase the attention southwest Richardson receives.

So, who has the better argument? Remember, all council members are elected at large. The bottom line here is where four of the council members will be required to reside.

I'm all for fair and equitable representation -- geographically, racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, the whole nine yards. Practically, this is rarely achieved by trying to achieve a balance of those measures within each political district. What typically happens is that slight imbalances lead to the majority within a district controlling power in that district. The remedy is usually to create some so-called majority minority districts where the minorities can be in the majority locally.

In the case of Richardson council representation, this is moot, as all council members are elected at large. The only tool the city charter wields to achieve fair and equitable representation is its geographical requirement that four of the council members reside in specific districts. When that's the only tool you have, it would be unwise not to use it for its intended purpose.

Options #1 and #3 give the best assurance that a council member will reside in each of the four quadrants. Option #2 carries with it the possibility of having all of the council members who represent districts 1-4 living *north* of Renner Rd. That's hardly geographically fair and equitable representation. It's unlikely to happen, but still possible. That's enough to eliminate option #2 for me.

How to choose between options #1 and #3? I see very little to distinguish between them on the grounds of fair and equitable representation. But there is something else that distinguishes between them. Option #3 respects current district boundaries more than option #1 does. Stability and continuity are values that should not be underestimated. That's enough of a factor to sway my own choice to option #3. Meh.

The CPC decided to postpone taking any action until city staff can calculate average property value, rental percentage, and median income for each proposed district, after which the public hearing will be reopened for additional input.

My prediction? The CPC will likely recommend option #1 as they seek to appease the residents in northwest Richardson who are "blowing up" the emails and phones. There's a slim chance that the CPC will recommend option #3, the choice nobody preferred but nobody said they were adamantly opposed to either (the "meh" option). No way will they recommend option #2 (the "shake 'em up" option for a "steady as she goes" city). Then, the city council will go along with whatever the CPC recommends.


Adam W said...

One thing that strikes me about options 2 and 3 are that they put most of our large scale commercial and employment in one district. This may not really matter so long as we don't have fiefdoms...er....single member districts.

Nathan Morgan said...

All this argument about shifting lines is a farce. The Northwest territory residents said it best when they said they feared their voting block would somehow be diluted if the two country club neighborhoods would be divided. Really? That would suggest their clique somehow has a corner on the market at City Hall.

This argument contradicts the whole position that "at large" elections assures the entire Council votes as a block for the better good across the city. Humbug! It's never been that way. The lesser-able areas in town have always suffered the indignations of the country club crowd. Open your eyes and look around. The initiatives pressed by the Northwest territory have consistently drained the city coffers.

Keeping the same system only perpetuates the existing lack of equity. Consider Coalitionist Mr. Tanner's comment several years ago when he claimed he and his kind deserved the benefit of a larger proportion of the public spending because, "I pay more taxes". He has been seen feeding his face at any free event he can crash.

BTW, Adam, City Hall is the biggest fiefdom in town. Single member districts would break up the monopoly. That's the prime reason you don't see any attempt to seriously consider proper representation of the disparate areas in town. There might actually be some argument over what is really best instead of constant showboating and wasting public resources.

Adam W said...

I'm sorry, but I disagree that single member districts would have any benefit. One only has to look south to see the "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" ramifications of such a system. The result is a paralyzed system where people may feel like they have more of a say while little gets done.

John Murphy said...

There is only one stated purpose in adjustng council boundaries; to balance the population in each district as close to the same as possible. Any attempt to set boundary lines based on other criteria such as race, ethnic background, income levels or number of rent houses in each district is called gerrymandering. That word carries well deserved negative meanings and should make the intentions of the proponents suspect.

Mark Steger said...

John, thanks for the feedback. You are correct that the Richardson City Charter says only that redistricting is done to maintain a substantial equality of population in each district. No other considerations are required. But the city charter is not the only law here. The Voting Rights Act forbids any racially discriminatory impact, so that, at least, has to be considered as well. There are other considerations that, while not required by city charter or federal law, are neither forbidden by it. They range from factors that most people consider reasonable and fair all the way to factors that most people would consider nefarious gerrymandering. It's a rich vein to mine, too rich for a comment thread.

John Murphy said...

All three plans are racially balanced and our minority citizens are scattered fairly evenly throughout the city anyway. Economic equity or balance which seemed to be the intent of plan 2 is not mentioned in any law I'm aware federal, state or local charter as a guideline or intent of redistricting. Making sure each district has a certain balance of haves and have nots is a slippery slope in my opinion. I liked your analysis of the potential consequences (planned or otherwise) of plan 2.

Anonymous said...


I don't see any gerrymandering in those criteria. Pick your dictionary but all seem to be very close in definition. Wikipedia says gerrymandering is "a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan or incumbent-protected districts."

Since none of these criteria that you named are being looked at in an attempt to gain political advantage, then drawing lines on their basis is not gerrymandering.

Mark Steger said...

Joe, good point. Notice one of the considerations the CPC is explicitly considering: "Boundaries should keep incumbents in their respective districts." Now *that* is textbook gerrymandering. Not illegal, mind you. Not even necessarily nefarious. It's just another example of the wide range of considerations beyond the balanced population called for in the city charter that commissions can and do take into consideration. As to which ones should and shouldn't carry the day, well, ..., that's politics. I've stated my opinion here and readers are welcome to state theirs.

Mark Steger said...

Idle thought... Arapaho Rd between Central and Greenville is where all four of the current council districts come together. It has the Civic Center at one end and a DART station on the other. Tons of potential, yes? Yet, all that's in between are car lots and a road carrying tens of thousands of drivers each day on their way to other places. Evidence that having even *four* council members represent your neighborhood is no assurance of seeing an area evolve to the highest and best use of land.

Nathan Morgan said...

Uh, did you consider how little has been done in the neglected districts of Richardson? The urban blight didn't happen because there was strong representation. It happened because of the back scratchin' that goes on among the inside traders at city hall. Shall I point out a few of those projects for your consideration?

Nathan Morgan said...

Well said, John. However, there are countless instances where gerrymandering has taken place for reasons beyond the classic few. One would have to be intimately familiar with the political landscape in any given area to truly appreciate the variety of reasons the lines are gerrymandered. Richardson is no exception. Only a dishonest person would suggest otherwise. Why do you think the Northwest territory is squawking so loudly? They've enjoyed the benefit of being the strongest voting block, feathering their own nest for a long, long time.

Nathan Morgan said...

Mark, all the better reason to have single member districts. There is no other way to assure individual Districts get proper representation. This one size fits all approach to District representation in a city that has experienced extraordinary growth in diversity like Richardson is for the history books. It's time to move into the 21st century and get serious about representing the will of the people, not the will of the government.

Nathan Morgan said...

Good point, Joe. I especially like the "political advantage" phrase in describing what the Northwest territory has been exercising. That conclave needs to be seriously considered, given your observation.

Nathan Morgan said...

Mark, Your idle thought suggests that with which we all have become quite familiar. There is nothing suggesting dog piling gets the job done better than good, old fashioned cooperation among representatives. People who point to the divisive atmosphere in Dallas are just blowing smoke if they think politics in Richardson will degrade into some sort of turf war like that. There are countless other examples where single member districts work exceptionally better than the gang bang approach.