Why You Should Pay Attention as the Charter Review Commission Tackles Redistricting

Some ideas I hope the commission considers that will give reform teeth

There’s another meeting of the city charter redistricting committee this evening, and you should start paying attention. Even though the ongoing effort to rework Dallas’ charter is not as sexy/controversial/batcrap-crazy as the leading civic spectacles of the day (345 teardown, DISD home-rule debate), it’s every bit as important.

It’s not because of the issue I wrote about, council pay, in which I advocate $100,000 annual salaries for council members. (The commission is largely in favor of a council pay raise, but no one thinks they can get close to that number, because OUTRAGE!) No, the big issue they’re beginning to tackle in earnest is changing the redistricting process — and getting rid of the borderline-sleazy backroom dealing that went on in the 2011 redistricting battle is priority No. 1.

How will they do that? Who knows, because they first have to come to a consensus, and then the council has to approve the plan. Tall order. But I have some pretty good guesses as to the solutions they will/should explore that include and go beyond this fine DMN editorial on the subject.

A quick refresher. Right now, when it comes time to redraw a map the single-member district maps that determine your district, each council member appoints a surrogate to a redistricting commission. The commission proposes maps that will comply to federal election laws, and then the council members go behind closed doors and redraw the map however they desire, each one (obviously) looking out for their own self-interests. There is no transparency, no accountability, deals are cut on the side to alter districts so specific people have a better or worse chance of winning the next election — it’s like season 4 of Survivor, with far less attractive people.

So, let’s look at the editorial board’s list of possible changes from that same article. It’s solid, and I hope to see all these points debated:

  •  A prohibition from having family members of council members on the redistricting commission.
  • No former or immediate-future council members would be eligible. If you are on the redistricting panel, you would be barred from serving on the council for an as-yet-undetermined period.
  • Assign a third party (someone such as the city auditor, for example) who would screen redistricting commission nominees to make sure they have no conflicts of interest, and then submit a roster of eligible nominees. The pool of possible commission members who don’t have a conflict of interest could be expanded and a 16-person commission selected by lottery.
  • Require some super-majority — two-thirds or four-fifths — for changes by the City Council to the redistricting map proposed by the commission.

A few addendums: One idea I’m a fan of relates to the idea of submitting a roster of eligible nominees to serve on the redistricting committee. It has two parts:

1. Each council member can submit no fewer than three names to the roster, and no more than, I dunno, five or six or seven. The “no fewer” part is so that a council member doesn’t find that one perfect toady who meets all other criteria – like, oh, just to choose a scenario at random, the employee of your spouse. Because if you make them pick at least three, then you can …

2. Allow each council member one strike of a name on the list. This is crucial. When it comes to self-preservation, politicians are like prisoners hiding contraband. They’re dumb in most every other aspect of life, but shockingly clever about how to do that one thing. You need to allow strikes so that the other prisoners, who know the best hiding places, can suss out chicanery among each other.

The other thing not discussed in that editorial that I think is vital: You’ve got to erect a cone of silence between council members and board appointees. It’s imperative. If you don’t, you get people texting instructions/veiled threats deep into the night. All the other reforms will just be window-dressing. You end up with this sort of nonsense.

Council members will yelp about this. “Are you saying I can’t talk to my own appointee?!” No. Of course not. That would be silly. You can talk to your appointee anytime you like, so long as the discussion is on the record. You can discuss anything you desire with him or her in a public forum, like any other citizen. If you violate that condition, that person is kicked off the commission.

I don’t know if these additional ideas have legs, but both seem to me important to making the reform efforts worthwhile. Tune in with your popcorn ready if you like your entertainment wonky.