During a Sept. 15 hearing, an indecisive City Council gave committee level approval to two competing proposals that would each realign the city’s 10 council districts in slightly different ways.
Both maps target gerrymandering — a practice long considered a problem in Philadelphia, with many districts cut into jagged, jigsaw-puzzle shapes for reasons that can only be explained by political motivations. Neither map would be used until 2015.
At last week’s council session, members were divided in their support. The proposals will be discussed during a Sept. 22 hearing, and council could vote to approve the new districts then.
Both maps could change because members might introduce amendments.
“It was a very challenging day,” said City Councilman Darrell Clarke (D-5th dist.) as members broke for the evening on Sept. 15. “I have, and will always continue, to try to work out an agreement.”
It’s a process that takes place every 10 years to reflect changes in Philadelphia’s population.
Using the 2010 U.S. Census data, council members have redrawn district boundaries to make sure all 10 districts contain almost the same amount of residents. Frank DiCicco (D-1st dist.) and James Kenney (D- at large) were joined by W. Wilson Goode Jr. (D- at large), Blondell Reynolds Brown (D- at large), Curtis Jones Jr. (D-4th dist.) and Joan Krajewski (D-6th dist.) in backing one of the maps.
Clarke was joined by fellow council members Maria Quinones-Sanchez (D- 7th dist), Brian O’Neill (R – 10th dist.), Anna Verna and Marian Tasco in backing a separate plan.
Courts have said that a 10-percent variation in district populations — about 15,000 people — is acceptable, but, Mayor Michael Nutter has said he would like that number to be closer to 5 percent.
Both plans come in under a 10 percent variation. DiCicco’s team proposed a plan in that makes the largest district the 6th, which would have159,445 residents; and smallest, the 4th District, would have 144,562 residents — a total population disparity of about 14,883.
In Tasco’s plan, the largest population disparity is about 14,173 residents between the 10th District, the largest with 160,247 residents, and the smallest (also the 4th district) at 146,074 residents.
The biggest impact both plans would make to the city’s current districts would be in cutting down the long panhandle shapes and strange district layouts created through decades of gerrymandering.
Both plans would see Democratic Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez’s 7th District lose its northern leg, which stretches from Adams and Castor avenues north to the Roosevelt Boulevard at Grant Avenue. This creates a more condensed 7th District in the heavily Latino populated areas of Kensington and North Philly, which make up a large percentage of the councilwoman’s supporters.
Also, both plans would see DiCicco’s 1st District give up ground north of Frankford Creek to the 6th District, while the 3rd District, due to the population increases in areas to the north and east, picks up extra space to the south.
Councilman Clarke’s district loses a northern section that hugged the 7th District, just south of Adams and Castor avenues. The 8th district, in the city’s Northwest neighborhoods, gains some land slightly to the east.
During the meeting, Councilman Goode said these changes were made following three principles — create symmetrical districts, do no harm and remove gerrymandering from the district map.
But, John Attanasio, a Center City resident who won a media-sponsored contest to remap the council districts, testified and said the new maps seem to “have been created to keep the current districts as much as possible.”
“We need to hit the reset button,” said Attanasio, who said he tried to focus on keeping neighborhoods together as a tenet of his plan.
He called DiCicco’s map “the better of the two plans,” but complained that there were still elements of gerrymandering in both plans.
Though differences in the plans seemed small, they became sticking points throughout the hourslong hearing. The biggest differences are the areas shared between the 10th District and the 6th District in the Northeast, and a piece of Strawberry Mansion that could be included in the 8th or 4th districts.
At last week’s council session, this seemed to be boiled down to two wards — the 56th Ward in the Northeast and the 11th Ward in Strawberry Mansion.
Council members gathered in separate teams, sharing crime statistics and whispering to one another as aides ran in and out of council chambers, hands stuffed with paperwork.
Discussion in the room seemed to focus on Clarke potentially getting the disputed areas of Strawberry Mansion included in his district, which he didn’t seem opposed to during the meeting.
“People keep moving everything without telling me. First it was in, then it was out,” said a visibly frustrated Clarke as the meeting wore on. “As the second most gerrymandered district in the city, anything would be an improvement.”
In the disputed areas of the Northeast, many have said the concern is that Republican Councilman Brian O’Neill might not want to have the 56th Ward — and Democratic ward leader John Sabatina — in his district.
However, O’Neill said that wasn’t the case.
“It’s never been about Republican voters,” he said. “It’s a matter of everyone getting what’s best for them.”
At the end of the day, little was resolved, with amendments that were presented to DiCicco’s plan shot down by a council vote.
Now, both plans will be presented on Thursday, Sept. 22, with each having the chance to be the future layout of the city’s districts.
After last week’s meeting, a tired Quinones-Sanchez said she was disappointed that the proposed amendments, which she said could have been a compromise, were rejected.
But, she said, new amendments could be presented when the bills are read again later this week.
“If that’s what it’s going to take, then it’s going to take more time,” said the councilwoman. “I wish we could have come to a conclusion on this one.”
Certainly, council members would all like to see a final decision made. Per a rule in the city’s Home Rule Charter, members haven’t received any pay since Sept. 9, the deadline for the final plan.
No council member will receive a salary until the final plan is in the mayor’s hands.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org