After months of debate, the Burlington City Council last night was finally set to vote on a redistricting plan to put before voters at 2014 Town Meeting.
Anyone who has followed the agonizing process of creating a new ward map probably won't be surprised by what happened — council members delayed their final vote for at least one more week and sent the project back again to a Charter Change Committee.
But some progress was made.
By a 10-4 vote, the council ordered the charter committee to more closely examine two issues: whether the Burlington School Board should change its size to fit a new district map; and whether anything can be done to address a quirk in the calendar, that, under the proposed current redistricting plan, could require some councilors to run for election in three consecutive years.
Those issues come as part of debate over a proposed electoral map, known as the "8-4-12 plan," that remained the council's preferred choice after hours of debate last night. A last-minute alternative map, the so-called "7-13" plan, was discussed but ultimately rejected.
The Charter Change Committee will be instructed to consider only the 8-4-12 plan, and was told to bring a proposal back to the council within a week.
Burlington, like cities and states everywhere, is required to adjust its electoral boundary lines every ten years when the U.S. Census is released to comply with changing residency patterns and the "one person, one vote" legal principle.
But the process is often bogged down by politics, and Burlington has been no different since the 2000 Census was released.
Burlington currently has seven wards that each elect two members to the city council. In recent days, councilors Norman Blais (D-Ward 6) and Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3) announced a new plan that would see 13 councilors drawn from the seven wards. Each ward would have two councilors except for the New North End, which would become a smaller area represented by only one councilor.
Thanks to population shifts, the New North End is over-served under the current district plan. It has more councilors per resident than other city wards, which is the biggest problem with the current district map. Blais and Brennan said their 7-13 plan would address that inequity without disrupting the rest of the city.
"This maintains in essence the neighborhoods that currently comprise a ward," Blais said. "There is a community that is over-represented. This is not a slight at the New North End. It is merely a recognition of the numbers."
But most councilors felt it was unfair to single out one neighborhood to have a lone representative, and prefered a larger overhaul to allow each resident two representatives on the council.
"It minimizes them so much, a ward that best symbolizes the working class, middle families that best represent the community," said Councilor David Harnett (D-Ward 4). "And now we're saying to them...'We're going to cut a councilor.' That is simply unfair. To take one part of the city and minimize them is just wrong."
In the end, Blais and Brennan won only one additional vote on the council —that of Rachel Siegel, (P-Ward 3).
Instead, the council seems poised to stick with the current draft, the "8-4-12" plan — in which one councilor would be drawn from each of eight new wards and four new precincts that would encompass multiple wards.
Council President Joan Shannon said she anticipated the Charter Change Committee would report back in time for the council to make a final vote at its meeting next week. Time is running short; officials have said the council needs to approve a redistricting plan by the end of the year so it can be on the 2014 Town Meeting ballot. If voters approve the change in March, it would have to be approved by the legislature, which approves all municipal charter changes. If it went smoothly in the Statehouse, the March 2015 election would be the first in accordance with the new wards, five years after the Census that forced the change.
That timing, however, leads to one of the remaining stumbling blocks the council wants the Charter Change Commission to consider.
Under the redistricting plan before the council, councilors elected in 2014 would be able to serve only year before the new map kicks in. To address that quirk, current plans call for them to run again for a one-year term in 2015, and then for the regular two-year term in 2016.
Last night, councilors decided to ask the Charter Change Commisison if there was a way to improve that scheme.
Before voting on the ward maps, councilors last night considered trimming the number of polling places used in the city to four, and mulled changing their terms from two years to three years, but both ideas failed to garner a majority of the council.