Forum held on having a voice in Valpo’s council redistricting

About 30 people gathered in a lecture hall at Valparaiso High School Thursday night to seek advice from two voting rights advocacy groups on how to have a say in the city’s efforts to gain a say. Although only 0.10% of the total population of Valparaiso, their presence is mostly about representation – and transparency.

The League of Women Voters of Porter County and Common Cause Indiana co-hosted the event, which guided attendees through the redistricting process and provided guidance on submitting their own redistricting maps for consideration by Valparaiso City Council. City Council Vice President Diana Reed, D-1st District, and Councilman Robert Cotton, D-2nd District were present.

Valparaiso City Council member Diana Reed, representing District 1, answers a question during the Draw the Line Valparaiso City Council Redistribution Forum at Valparaiso High School on Thursday, October 13, 2022. Common Cause Indiana and the League of Women Voters sponsored the event.  (Andy Lavalley for the Post-Tribune)

There is not much time as the City Council just passed Resolution No. 15, 2022 on September 26th and is asking for input from citizens by noon on October 19th. That’s 22 ½ days. The council gives itself even less time to examine submitted plans. She will convene for a public hearing on October 24 at 6 p.m. to review and evaluate draft city redistribution plans being prepared by Indianapolis law firm Kroger Gardis & Regas, LLP, which is acting as adviser to the city, and all of her submitted plans were presented to residents.

“Your council hired a very politically connected Indy law firm,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. She told the audience that they had already made a difference by calling for a more public trial.

“There’s not really a lot of guidance within the law to keep politicians in check when they’re redrawing the maps,” Vaughn said. Residents can visit the City Hall office for a binder with instructions and helpful information for relocation, such as: B. pick up a population list by district.

Residents do not have access to the same proprietary software used by the consulting law firm. “It’s disappointing that you weren’t given the same tools that this person who was hired with your tax dollars is using,” Vaughn said. According to Reed, the firm will be paid $40,000 for their services.

Common Cause Indiana Board Member Chris Harris speaks during the Draw the Line Valparaiso forum on the City Council Reshuffle at Valparaiso High School on Thursday, October 13, 2022. The forum was sponsored by Common Cause Indiana and the League of Women Voters Sponsored.  (Andy Lavalley for the Post-Tribune)

Vaughn, along with Common Cause Indiana board member Chris Harris, offered a link and QR code to access the free RedistrictR software developed by Tufts University’s MGGG Lab. Harris gave a tutorial on how to use RedistrictR, which offers many features that allow users to make district boundary decisions based on a variety of criteria, from residents’ voting history and political affiliation to age and racial demographics from the census.

While the presentation showed that the low racial diversity that Valparaiso has is fairly evenly distributed across the city, Vaughn explained that there are many other types of communities of interest that residents would like to engage with in guiding the redistribution process.

She gave a classic example of a poorly drained neighborhood; not uncommon in Valparaiso. “If your neighborhood is divided into three different wards, where do you seek help?” she asked.

Fern Wade, a lifelong fifth-generation Valparaiso resident, is concerned about the community of interest made up of “old Valpo.” “There’s been such an impact here lately because people have been coming here from Chicago,” she said. “They still work in Chicago because they like to make money, and it’s like three for a dollar. What they are doing increases the cost of living for those of us who were born and raised here.”

Valparaiso is a 3rd class city in terms of redistribution, which means it has to be divided into five districts. These districts must be contiguous and relatively compact, and should each have a target population as close as possible to 6,830.

Jeanne Hayes takes notes on the council reshuffle at Valparaiso High School during the Draw the Line Valparaiso forum on Thursday, October 13, 2022. The forum was sponsored by Common Cause Indiana and the League of Women Voters.  (Andy Lavalley for the Post-Tribune)

Vaughn told the crowd her organization believes district incumbents should be blind and politically competitive. Valparaiso-based Barbara Domer, a member of the League of Women Voters who served on her state constituency committee, is concerned that Kroger Gardis & Regas, LLP policy adviser Brian Bosma could interfere with the process.

“Bosma was the speaker of the Indiana House the last time the map was redrawn at the state level, which resulted in a supermajority,” she said. Domer asked Vaughn what the best course of action would be to start a citizen-based redistribution effort like the one successfully launched in Bloomington and Goshen.

“I know it’s almost too late, so in 10 years?” she asked. Vaughn said Valparaiso residents must make it clear to their city council that they want the process to turn over to citizens in 2032.

She also said residents must give credit to the Valparaiso City Council for the steps it has taken to accept public contributions. “Honestly, they gave you more than the Indy City/County Council gave my community,” she said. “So let’s appreciate that.”

Porter County League of Women Voters President Beckie Guffin said her group’s top concern is that the process be transparent. “We knew when we started that it was going to be tight,” she said of the recent public information campaign. “These things don’t happen overnight, and they bring awareness. Change comes slowly. You must sow the seeds.”

A public meeting is tentatively scheduled for November 14 at 6:00 p.m. to make changes to the plan pending approval and to pass an ordinance approving the plan upon final adoption. A certified copy of the ordinance must then be filed with the Porter County Clerk within 30 days of such acceptance.

Shelley Jones is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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