Gary mayor turns to state after city council misses deadline for redistricting vote

Failure by the Gary Common Council to approve a redistricting plan required by state statute in the wake of the 2020 decennial census by the Dec. 31 deadline has prompted the Prince Administration to seek assistance from the state legislature to rectify the situation.

Mayor Jerome Prince said he has reached out to State Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Mishawaka, chairman of the House Elections Committee and State Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Wayne Township, ranking minority member of the Senate Elections Committee to seek a legislative solution to the failure to redistrict.

He said he does not know what that solution may look like but could possibly include an extended deadline for the council to act and complete the map.

Prince said he also has reached out to the members of the Northwest Indiana delegation sharing his concerns and asking for their support.

“I reached out to the election committee leadership in the House and the Senate to try and get their support helping us address what I consider to be a missed opportunity,” Prince said, adding the city has a statutory responsibility to complete the redistricting.

Prince said he is unsure why the council did not act on the redistricting.

The redistricting is a state requirement that occurs every 10 years after new population numbers are realized in the decennial U.S. Census.

Council Vice President Tai Adkins, D-4, chaired the redistricting committee with the assistance of Council President William Godwin, D-1. Adkins presented the proposed changes to the council in a Dec. 5 committee meeting. The matter did not come before the council at its regular meeting Dec. 6. Following that meeting Adkins said the matter would be considered at the Dec. 20 regular meeting. The matter was not considered at that meeting, the last regular meeting of 2022.

The proposal presented during the redistricting committee meeting called for moving precinct G4-28 from the fourth district and G6-07 from the sixth district into the fifth district in an effort to more evenly balance the population while keeping the districts compact and contiguous.

Currently District 1 has 12,437 residents; District 2 has 12,153; District 3 has 12,009; District 4 has 11,607, District 5 has 9,651 and District 6 has 11,250.

Under the proposal to be considered by the council, Districts 1, 2 and 3 would remain unchanged. The updated District 4 would be reduced by 70 to 11,537 residents while the updated District 6 would be reduced by 994 to 10,256; all of those residents would shift to District 5.

The updated District 5 would increase by 1,064 to 10,715 residents, according to the plan provided by Adkins in December.

Godwin said following the Dec. 5 Redistricting Committee meeting, 6th District precinct committeemen raised concerns about disenfranchising the 6th District by reducing its population by nearly 1,000 residents. Currently the 5th and 6th Districts have the lowest populations. District 6 has 1,599 more residents than the 5th District. If the map were approved, District 5 would wind up with 459 more residents than the 6th District.

Godwin said during the meeting he discussed how the 2018 state-led precinct consolidations in Gary have now made it extremely difficult to shift precincts without causing major disruption to neighborhoods and communities while also keeping each district’s population as equal as possible.

The city had more than 100 precincts when it was last redistricted in 2010 compared to 49 larger precincts today, he said.

“When the precincts were smaller, it was much less disruptive to move precincts between districts, while also considering issues related to long standing neighborhood boundaries and the residency of currently elected Precinct Committeemen and incumbent council members,” Godwin wrote.

“Ultimately the Redistricting Committee decided not to move forward with any changes to the city’s map, which is the same decision made by neighboring Hammond which also made no changes to their map last year,” he said.

In his letter to the Northwest Indiana Delegation, Prince called the matter “troubling.”

“This has resulted in a situation in which the City Council districts were neither recertified nor redrawn to account for population changes, which could negatively impact voter representation,” Prince wrote to the delegation.

Prince told local legislators he reached out to the chairs of the election committees to ask for assistance in resolving the issue as quickly as possible.

“As they consider solutions, I would ask for your support as a unified Northwest Indiana delegation to seek a quick and reasonable solution that assures that all Gary voters are fairly represented in the upcoming municipal elections,” Prince wrote.

Michelle Fajman, director of the Lake County Board of Elections, said since a new map was not filed, nothing will change.

“Right now, we will proceed as the districts were 10 years ago,” Fajman said.

Gary is the only local unit that required redistricting that did not submit a map. Some bodies, such as Hammond, did not have large population shifts and resubmitted the existing maps without changes.

Matthew Kochevar, co-general counsel for the Indiana Elections Division, said the new redistricting law that went into effect in 2022 requires city and town councils with voting districts to redistrict following the decennial census. Municipalities had until Dec. 31 to pass their redistricting maps and another 30 days to present that map the clerk’s office.

“After that. The law says you cannot redistrict until the next census,” Kochevar said. A court order or General Assembly action could create an opportunity to redistrict outside of the decennial census cycle. A special census due to a significant population change prior to the decennial census could also trigger redistricting.

“The time to redistrict based on the 2020 Census has passed under state law,” Kochevar said.

If a governing unit does not pass a new redistricting ordinance in the allotted time, the existing ordinance would remain in effect, he said.

Kochevar said according to state statutes, second class cities such as Gary need districts that are generally contiguous, reasonably compact and do not cross precinct lines. Those districts also need to contain as equal population as possible. What equal population means can be subjective, but generally, he said precincts should have about 10% deviation.

“That’s the general rule of thumb that I have always seen used. You need to try to get under a 10% deviation,” he said.’

“If any person believes the ordinance is not in compliance with state law or established court precedents, a way to argue those things or see a remedy if they want it is to go into state court,” Kochevar said.

Price said it appears statute does not specific any punitive action when a body does not follow the redistricting process, but he is concerned by the legal ramifications and the impact on voters.

“I think it opens us up and makes us vulnerable to some type of litigation,” Prince said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure Gary voters are represented.”

Godwin said he was unaware the administration had any concerns about the redistricting and did not receive any communication, concern or direction from the mayor’s office, the city’s corporation council or the council’s attorney alerting the council they were required to recertify the existing map via ordinance if no changes were made.

The council could recertify the existing map effective retroactive to Dec 31, 2022 at its Jan. 20 council meeting, he said.

“I am not sure what the state legislature can or will do; we are open to potential solutions,” Godwin said.

Former Gary resident Christopher Harris served as one of nine commissioners in the Indiana Citizens’ Redistricting Commission. The commission was formed in 2021 through a coalition of not-for-profit organization All IN for Democracy led by Common Cause Indiana. Harris consulted with Adkins during the redistricting process and attended the Dec. 5 committee meeting.

With a population of 69,093 according to the 2020 U.S. Census, ideally each district now should have a population of 11,515. Gary’s 5th District, which primarily consists of Black Oak, University Park and Midtown communities, has experienced significant population decline decreasing from 12,722 to 9,651, a loss of 3,071 residents.

Population deviation in 2010 between districts was about 8%.

“Communities can recertify their previous legislative boundaries so long as their population deviation is less than 10%. That is the key,” Harris said.

Leaving the legislative maps the same in Gary creates an approximate 24% population deviation among districts in violation of state statute requiring a population deviation of less than 10%.

“Gary residents deserve to have a fair and transparent redistricting process free of political spin or bias from either side of this avoidable spectacle,” Harris said.