It’s time for Minneapolis to embark once again on a thankless job — redrawing the boundaries that ultimately will help determine who will represent citizens in each of the city’s13 wards.
This year, for the once-a-decade job, the city will use a brand new process that either will eliminate partisan politics — or make those maneuvers harder to spot.
Armed with new figures from the 2010 U.S. Census, the city’s Charter Commission and its Advisory Group are sitting down to re-draw boundaries meant to equalize the populations of Minneapolis wards and park districts.
Barry Clegg, chair of both groups, says the mission of the redistricting team is to go forward in a nonpartisan manner, and “even people with political views can do that.” He acknowledges that the panel includes some “political animals.”
At last week’s first meeting, when I looked around the room at the participants, I saw several long-timers that have made political decisions in the past and might still be capable of making them during this new process.
Last year, voters amended the city charter to remove much of the traditional politicking by giving the task to the Charter Commission, which is appointed by the chief judge of Hennepin County District Court.
In the old system, the line-drawing committee was filled with nominees — advanced by political parties, interest groups and the city council — often sent to the bargaining table to defend political turf.
The new system copies the one in St. Paul, which already has wrapped up its work on new boundaries to accommodate the upcoming election.
Ten years ago, Minneapolis used two sets of software and hired two experts at drawing district lines. This year, there’s one software program — and one Geographic Information Services consultant — for all to share.
In the past, Clegg says, “People got a bad taste in their mouths from the politics involved” in redistricting and tinkered with changes. Then they looked around the country at what other cities did and found a model in the St. Paul system where the new lines are drawn by the Charter Commission.
It will be difficult to draw lines that radically change the political make-up of Minneapolis City Hall because lots of groups will be watching and weighing in on the process. The city is heavily DFL, has a strong neighborhood structure, active ethnic groups and a politically engaged business community.
The political balancing act required was driven home repeatedly during a redistricting group training session last week as participants learned about the daunting task ahead. For example:
• Only three of the 13 wards gained population while seven have lost voters.
• The biggest growth cuts across the center of the city — in Wards 2 and 7, which include downtown, the warehouse district and the area around the University of Minnesota.
• The biggest drop in population occurred on the north side — in Wards 4 and 5.
• Just south of downtown, Ward 6 is also hurting for people.
The goal is to realign the boundaries so that each ward has 29,429 residents, plus or minus 5 percent. (The plus or minus concept gives wiggle room of about 3,000 people per ward.) You can see the current ward population imbalance in the accompanying map.
The dilemma: When you move one boundary to solve one problem, you can easily create two or three new problems in adjacent neighborhoods. Further complicating matters are efforts to avoid splitting up distinct neighborhoods or ethnic groups.
Factors like these make the process a lot more complicated than simply cutting off parts of Wards 2 and 7, slapping them onto Wards 4, 5 and 6 and having plenty of time left over to go out to lunch.
The groups also face a deadline for all of this work, too — April 3, 2012 — in time for all the campaigning and political activity that lead up to the next city elections.
The redistricting group will meet again in late November or early December. At that point, software expert and staff person are to be in place.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to follow redistricting developments and will post a web address that that will give you access to maps under consideration.