On Monday night, the Burlington City Council will consider a complicated compromise on redistricting that as of Sunday was just one vote shy of having majority support.
This proposed reconfiguration of the city's political boundaries already has the expressed backing of seven of the council's 14 members. Three Democrats, three Progressives and the council's lone Republican are behind the plan, giving it the gloss of tripartisan appeal.
Geographically, however, support for the scheme is so far confined to the Old North End and the New North End. It remains to be seen whether councilors representing other parts of the city will go along with the proposal to establish eight wards and four "precincts" to be represented by a total of 12 councilors — two fewer than today. The council's Monday agenda also includes five alternative plans, each of which has the listed support of at most a single council member.
One of the virtues of the "hybrid" proposal is that it keeps the four current Old North End and New North End wards intact and distinct, notes Progressive Councilor Max Tracy. Residents in those two sections of Burlington have indicated they do not want their neighborhoods to be combined as a result of the redistricting process, Tracy says.
The map he helped draw also maintains the boundaries of all seven existing wards generally as they exist today, Tracy adds. The compromise creates an eighth ward that encompasses and surrounds much of the University of Vermont campus. Population growth in that area, as measured by the 2010 U.S. census, is the main factor necessitating a redrawing of ward boundaries. Unless there's a consequent adjustment in the number of residents represented per councilor, Burlington will be vulnerable to a lawsuit challenging its compliance with the U.S. Constitution's "equal protection" provision, which is often referred to as "one person, one vote."
Parts of a few of the current wards would be subsumed into the envisioned Ward 8, which would consist largely of UVM students. An increase in the number of undergraduates since 2000 is what mainly accounts for the overall population growth in today's Ward 1. Ward 4 in the New North End, by contrast, has grown more slowly than any of the other six existing wards. A couple of the proposals offered earlier in the redistricting process would have in effect reduced representation for the New North End from four to three councilors — an approach which generated intense opposition in that part of the city.
Clear enough so far?
The complex part of the compromise involves combining pairs of the eight proposed wards into a total of four "precincts" or "districts." (The nomenclature hasn't been decided.) Wards one and eight would form a precinct to be represented by a single councilor — in addition to the councilor who would represent Ward 1 and the councilor who would represent Ward 8. The same would occur in the cases of wards two and three; four and seven; and five and six.
In part because Burlington voters have no familiarity with the notion of precincts, "it's not an ideal plan," Tracy acknowledges. "But I don't think any of the plans are ideal," he adds. "Redistricting was always going to be a complex and messy process."
None of the plans devised by two separate redistricting committees generated broad support, notes Democratic New North End Councilor Bryan Aubin. Those panels — the first consisting of the mayor and four council members; the second made up of four councilors and 10 city residents — grappled for months with the task of redrawing ward lines but proved unable to reach a clear consensus.
The eight wards/four precincts/12 councilors proposal, which was not developed by either of the redistricting committees, may also fail to win majority backing at Monday's session. But if one additional Dem or Prog does join the seven councilors supporting the plan — and Mayor Miro Weinberger accepts it as well — then it will be up to Burlington voters next March to decide whether to approve this compromise or to send everyone back to the drawing board.
No redistricting plan can advance unless it's endorsed at the polls on Town Meeting Day in March. It would then have to be cleared by the Vermont Legislature because rearrangement of the city's ward lines requires a charter change.
Voters will have to follow a "learning curve" in order for the eight/four/12 plan to prevail, Aubin acknowledges. "But I think the people of Burlington are smart enough to figure it out," he adds.
Republican Councilor Paul Decelles offers a similar prognosis. He draws a contrast between the redistricting compromise he backs and the city's experiment with instant runoff voting (IRV), which he "hated." IRV was repealed because its complexities proved unpalatable to most voters, Decelles says. "But this isn't like that," he suggests in reference to the eight/four/12 plan.