IOM editorial: Look how much better a district map Council could have

If you click on this link, you'll find a striking pair of images. One is a map of Philadelphia's councilmanic districts, drawn by City Council in 2001. The other is a map of how Philly's Council districts could look, drawn by John Attanasio, the winner of a redistricting contest created by the software mapping firm Azavea, and sponsored by the Daily News and WHYY (see all the winners here).

Attanasio's map is better than the official one in almost every way. Clean and coherent, his map makes the official one look like a crayon scribbling by a drunken 4-year-old.

The good news: The crayon scribbling is about to be replaced. Council has been meeting for the past few weeks to redraw the map as the city charter requires it to do every 10 years to adjust for population shifts. The bad news: We have no guarantee that the new version won't be as bad as - or worse than - the old.

That's because a small Council committee has been meeting behind closed doors to redraw its map to meet a Thursday deadline. We don't know what criteria it's using, besides the obvious one of political self-interest, or what principles are guiding its decisions.

It's certainly not public input. Two of the three public hearings on redistricting were scheduled only after the public demanded more than a single perfunctory hearing. The final hearing, tonight, is two days before the release of the map. It's an easy bet that public input won't be a key element in the final.

Redistricting should be a months-long affair in which the city solicits input from citizens about priorities (is it more important to create a majority Latino district, or to respect boundaries like rivers and parks?) and floats several plans that get modified. Instead, Council is expected to release a draft map this week, and vote on it two weeks later.

How hard is it to understand that process affects outcome? A bad process is sure to lead to bad results.

Then again, even if Council trusted the public enough to be part of the process, the fact remains that our system allows Council to draw unreasonable plans that protect members' incumbency. Council's districts are drawn by Council alone, with few checks on its decision-making. It's like leaving your dog alone in the kitchen with a pot roast.

There are other ways to redistrict. San Francisco uses a task force appointed by various authorities. It holds public meetings and changes drafts based on feedback. More than a dozen states have moved toward a nonpartisan redistricting commission. No commission is a cure-all. But the conflict of interest for Council is too great to leave redistricting in its hands alone.

Council should amend the city charter to take some power out of its own hands. It should do it this fall, while redistricting is still fresh in the public's mind. Either that, or John Attanasio can upstage it again in 2021.

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