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Since City Council can’t agree on a new ward map, it must listen to what the public says

Public hearings are where we hope residents can have a meaningful say in the process, with their voices used to create a remap that actually benefits the city, not political fiefdoms.

The proposed new ward map was distributed during a special City Council meeting on Dec. 1. City Council members failed to vote on the map.
The proposed new ward map was distributed during a special City Council meeting on Wednesday. City Council members failed to vote on the map.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

If any good came out of Wednesday’s near-useless City Council Rules Committee meeting, it’s that the public will now have some input on the contentious ward remap process going on now.

That’s some consolation, at least, given that alderpeople failed in their duty to approve a new ward map by the Dec. 1 deadline, namely because Black and Latino factions have been unable to agree on a map.

So Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) — who chairs the Rules Committee and helped create the map supported by the Aldermanic Black Caucus — introduced a map in Wednesday’s committee meeting but didn’t call it to a vote.

Instead, the committee will have public hearings beginning next week, followed by more in January, Harris told council members.

These hearings are where we hope the public can have some meaningful say in the process. City Council must put aside politics — for once — listen to the public’s voices and then rely on the public’s insight to create a remap that actually benefits the city, rather than protects fiefdoms.

This may be wishful thinking, but we also want this process to be the first step toward ultimately taking remap duties away from alderpeople altogether. An independent, public commission, empowered by law and chosen by a predetermined process, should be in full charge of this important task.

It’s too important to leave in the hands of those whose overriding objective is keeping their jobs.

Competing maps

The City Council blew the Dec. 1 deadline largely due to the squabble between Black and Latino alderpeople.

The Black Caucus’s remap plan called for 18 majority-white wards, while Black wards would drop from 18 to 17. Latino wards would increase from 13 to 14, and the city would get its first Asian ward under the plan.

Latino alderpersons proposed a map that would have 15 Hispanic council members but dropped the number of Black wards to 16.

The map introduced by Harris also increases the number of Black wards to 16 but proposes 14 Latino wards — one less than the Latino caucus is seeking — and a majority Asian ward that would include Bridgeport.

The 27th Ward on the Near West Side would be drawn to have a plurality of Black voters, but not a majority. Ald. Walter Burnett, who is Black, currently represents the ward, a former African American political stronghold that now has a rising white population.

But without Latino support, the map doesn’t stand a chance of getting the 41 City Council votes needed to keep it from potentially heading to a public referendum next year. If a map gets fewer than 41 votes, 10 council members can get a map to a referendum by petitioning for it.

So Harris’ call for public discussion and more time to work things out is sensible.

A better way

But let’s be clear about what got us here: council members being left to their own devices to carve up territories in ways that primarily are of benefit to them.

With all of the political wrestling going on, you almost forget the purpose of remapping is to ensure fair representation for all citizens — not to create crazy-quilt ward maps designed to politically protect aldermen.

Wards must be remapped after each U.S. Census to take into consideration population shifts. But there’s a better way to go about it than this.

For instance, California passed a law in 2008 that handed mapmaking and redistricting responsibilities in Los Angeles County to an independent commission authorized by the state, made up of members of the public and backed by a professional staff.

Remapping is still messy, as is its nature given shifting demographics and the sometimes-competing desires of different communities. But the process in L.A. County is at least public and transparent from beginning to end, with draft maps released along the way.

City Council members have proven time and again they’re not up to this task. It’s time to relieve them of it.

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