Council again shows disdain for public input

What is it with City Council that it doesn’t feel obligated to let the public have a say in important decisions?

Remember, it took a lawsuit that had to wind its way through the courts over a three-year period before Council finally agreed earlier this year to provide a public-comment period during its regular meetings. Now, Council is again showing that body’s preference for backroom deals by scheduling only one public hearing to draw new Council district lines based on the last census.

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President Anna Verna announced that City Council would hold only one public hearing on redistricting.

Council President Anna Verna announced Tuesday that the hearing would be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, in Council chambers. If you’re at work at that hour, too bad. If you’re vacationing at the Shore, tough luck. If Council really cared about public input, it would have long ago scheduled multiple public hearings in multiple neighborhoods

Under the City Charter, the map dividing the city must be redrawn after every decennial census so that each of the 10 district Council members represents roughly the same number of people. With a population of 1.52 million, that’s about 152,000 per district. The seven at-large members represent the entire city.

The results of redistricting are reflected in subsequent Council elections as voters typically will choose a person whose ethnicity and background most closely resembles theirs. This time around, the new district map must reflect population growth in the east side of the city.

Too often, the drawing of new district lines results from backroom deals benefiting incumbents who want to run in friendly districts with a majority of residents with the same background. Accomplishing that goal has led to some absurdly drawn districts, like the Seventh, which haphazardly meanders east and west of Roosevelt Boulevard.

Taking the deal out of the backroom would better inform the process. Citizens bring ideas to the table that elude politicians.

In fact, in addition to holding multiple public hearings, Council should take advantage of data collected by local software firm Azavea Inc. through a program that allows people to construct computer models of their ideal Council districts based on census data. The www.fixphillydistricts.com website may launch this week.

New Jersey recently remapped its legislative districts and held hearings throughout the state. Members of both parties later huddled in a New Brunswick hotel to cut the deal in April. But at least the public was given more than one chance to be heard, and what people said was meaningful.

Philadelphians have strong relationships with their district Council members. These are the men and women expected to solve everything from break-ins to snow removal. District Council members do that best when they represent contiguous neighborhoods, not far-flung fiefdoms.

The public can help a Council task force stay focused on achieving the right results. But only if the public has a seat at the table. Time is running out before the Sept. 9 deadline to have the new lines drawn. Council needs to hold more than one public hearing before it makes its decision.