Earning itself a small round of applause last night, the Burlington City Council eked out a redistricting plan for Burlington voters to decide on next March. Known as the “8-4-12 plan,” the new map divides the city into eight wards and four larger “precincts,” each represented by one councilor. Currently, 14 councilors represent seven wards.
In the council’s final meeting of the year, the 9-5 vote came just in time to bring the plan before voters on Town Meeting Day in March. Under the “one-person, one-vote” legal principle, the city would have been vulnerable to a lawsuit from virtually any voter had it not approved the redistricting plan.
That’s because changing population patterns have left certain wards disproportionately represented in the council. Based on the 2010 census, the less-densely populated New North End is currently made up of two wards — 4 and 7 — giving that part of the city a total of four councilors. Meanwhile, even as the population of Ward 1 has swollen due to University of Vermont student housing, only two councilors currently represent those residents.
Considering how long the councilors have been debating the redistricting plan — a year-plus — their discussion last night was speedy, clocking in at under 30 minutes. In part, their brevity may have been inspired by Mayor Miro Weinberger, who yesterday wrote a letter requesting that the councilors approve the 8-4-12 plan.
“A failure to do so would, for a second year in a row, disenfranchise Burlington voters on this issue, render much of the enormous effort to date wasted, and result in considerable further distraction from our core municipal responsibilities,” Weinberger wrote.
Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3), a member of the Charter Change Committee, introduced the most recent draft of the resolution. After last week's council meeting, her committee had added language that would make voting districts for the Burlington School Board match that of the city council.
Furthermore, Siegel explained, a quirk in the proposed plan would force some of her peers to face reelection three years in a row, due to a temporary one-year term created during the transition period. (Councilors elected in 2014 would have to go up for reelection again in both 2015 and 2016.)
To spare councilors the need for back-to-back campaigns, Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2) reintroduced an amendment that the council had voted down last week, which would temporarily extend terms to three years through the transition period. Last night, the councilors approved it.
Knodell also introduced an amendment that would shape the new Ward 8 to better reflect the mix of students and permanent residents in the area. It passed, despite an argument from Councilor Norman Blais (D-Ward 6) that it would splinter current neighbors in Ward 6.
Ultimately, councilors who voted to approve the amended redistricting plan were Knodell, Siegel, Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3), Bryan Aubin (D-Ward 4), David Hartnett (D-Ward 4), Tom Ayres (D-Ward 7) and Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7).
Councilors Blais, Kevin Worden (D-Ward 1), Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5), Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) and Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) voted against the resolution.
“And we have a redistricting charter change to go on the ballot. Congratulations to the council,” Council President Shannon said at the end of the vote. Then, she joked, “I actually can’t believe this is over. I'm a little stunned, I didn’t think this would ever end.”