Opinion and Forefront

BOEHM: Battle over council is unnecessary

June 29, 2013

Ted BoehmA two-front war is waging over control of the City-County Council. The General Assembly recently changed the Unigov statute to eliminate the four at-large council seats. Meanwhile, a special five-judge panel is considering a challenge to the city-county ordinance drawing the council’s 25 single-member districts.

It is hard to find any credible explanation other than raw partisan politics for either the legislation or the council’s ordinance. That is hardly a new insight, but it offers more evidence of the need for redistricting reform and home rule.

First, consider the redistricting mess. The law required that redistricting be done in 2012, the second year after the 2010 census. The November 2011 election for the first time gave the Democrats the majority in the council effective Jan. 1, 2012. In December 2011, the Republican majority responded with a gerrymandered redistricting ordinance.

It is difficult to see any policy reason why the dead hand of a defeated majority should be able to resurrect itself. Yet that is what the Republican council attempted.

The 2012 council then adopted a Democratic map that Mayor Ballard vetoed. Court complaint contends that the result is we have no 2012 redistricting, so we have the same situation produced by Mayor Peterson’s veto of Republican maps following the 2000 census.

If the court agrees, a court-ordered neutral map should undo the 2011 attempt to reimpose gerrymandering on the voters.

A neutral map would be a happy ending, but we should be able to get there without all this expense, confusion and bickering. Legislative bodies seem irresistibly drawn to gerrymander their own districts. There are other, better alternatives such as the independent redistricting commissions in some states.

Removing districting from the council would eliminate the inherent conflict of interest the majority party has in drawing lines for its own election. And neutral maps would help reduce the partisanship permeating national, state and local legislative bodies.

As for the state law, Unigov was initially passed in 1969 by Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Until the 2013 session, the law provided for four at-large seats on the council.

There is a legitimate argument that at-large seats have some merit. They cannot be gerrymandered and therefore reflect the views of the entire community. If we must leave redistricting to the council, at-large seats provide the opportunity for a few centrists to balance the polarized result.

This wisdom escaped Democrats when Unigov was young and Republican majorities were virtually assured. They, including your author, complained in the 1970s that the at-large seats were a thinly disguised means of assuring that the coattails of inevitably Republican mayors would enjoy a Republican majority on the council. Constitutional challenges to the at-large seats were ultimately rejected by a narrow margin in the federal courts.

The claim that eliminating at-large districts is grounded in policy rings hollow. Forty years after Unigov was enacted, shifting demographics of the county for the first time gave the at-large seats and a majority of the council to the Democrats. Only then did Republican legislators find at-large seats problematic.

Here the problem is state tinkering with the structure of local government. Most of the General Assembly has only partisan political interests in the composition of the county council.

The result is both lawmaking by conflicted legislators and legislation without representation.•

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Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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