M/clear
53°
M/clear
Hi 78° | Lo 61°

Redistricting plan unveiled

'10-year-measure links wards, towns'

The House leadership's redistricting plan was released yesterday, touted as a cooperative effort under difficult legal circumstances but criticized by some local officials and political opponents ahead of a public hearing this afternoon.

The 10-year plan redraws the voting districts for the state's 400 House members before next year's elections to reflect population changes in last year's census. Additionally, it seeks to conform with a 2006 constitutional amendment that required lawmakers to craft more districts in which House members solely represent small towns instead of lumping together groups of towns and representatives.

Several lawmakers had taken cracks at drawing up their own plans, and Paul Mirski, the Enfield Republican who chaired the redistricting committee, said many of the suggestions - some submitted in a last-minute flurry following closed-door unveilings of the plan - were included in yesterday's proposal.

"It's an amalgamation of all those things," said Rep. David Bates, a Windham Republican on the committee.

Despite the constitutional amendment requiring smaller, single-community districts, the plan has been criticized for taking individual city wards and combining them with neighboring towns. Concord's Ward 5 is combined with Hopkinton - which currently shares three seats with Warner and Webster - a decision that Mayor Jim Bouley questioned because "the services that we are required here to provide to those around us are very different."

"I know the people of Hopkinton are wonderful folks, but I question whether we have anything in common with the folks of Hopkinton," he said. "We get 13 reps, and I believe the city of Concord deserves to be fully represented by those 13 folks."

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, the Democrat who represents Ward 5, said the change sets a "bad precedent." Wallner's ward and Hopkinton would share three seats, but Hopkinton has about 1,500 more people. City Councilor Steve Shurtleff, a House Democrat, said over time the city could end up without a seat representing Ward 5 and he plans to speak out against the change at today's hearing.

"For as long as I can remember, House reps from Concord have always been in the city," Shurtleff said.

The combination of Ward 5 and Hopkinton is a product of the strict rules adopted by the committee to ensure about the same number of people are being represented by each House member. The "ideal population" for a representative is 3,292 - the state's population divided by 400 - and Mirski has sought to ensure no more than a 5 percent standard deviation above or below that number. Both Hopkinton and Concord's Ward 5 were too large for a single representative and too small for two representatives, so the only acceptable decision was to combine them, he said.

"They're not going to be happy, but there's no other solution," Mirski said.

In Franklin, which currently has three House members representing all three wards and neighboring Hill, the city would be broken into two districts. Franklin Wards 1 and 2 and Hill would have two representatives; Franklin Ward 3 and Northfield would also have two.

Rep. Dennis Reed, a Franklin Republican in his fifth term, said he told Mirski he wanted Franklin to be left as a whole district. Northfield has about 2,000 more people than Franklin's Ward 3.

"We would need a very strong candidate to run in that district to keep a third representative in Franklin," he said. "I'm not totally secure with Franklin having just two reps."

In earlier versions of the plan circulated in recent days, a Nashua ward represented by Democrat Cindy Rosenwald had been combined with neighboring Hudson, which has about 15,000 more people. On Tuesday night, Nashua's board of aldermen voted unanimously in disapproval of the plan. The proposal yesterday left Rosenwald's ward by itself and combined Hudson with Pelham in an 11-seat district.

"I saw that common sense prevailed overnight," Rosenwald said yesterday. "Cities are different from small rural towns. Their government, their social needs are often different."

In a statement yesterday, Rep. David Pierce, the ranking Democrat on the committee, criticized the plan for not doing enough to follow the 2006 constitutional amendment.

"The Republican Leadership plan denies towns and wards their own representatives even though the state constitution guarantees them their own representatives," Pierce said. "And they've offered no reason why they ignored the state constitution."

But Mirski said he and others did all they could to follow the state constitution while also complying with federal requirements of "one person, one vote." The plan backed by Democrats employed a new weighted voting system to achieve a larger number of small districts, but Mirski said "you can't go to the people of New Hampshire and say, 'You're going to vote totally differently now.' "

"You take everything from the state constitution and carry it to the max against the limitations applied by the federal constitution," he said.

Now that the plan is public, there is scant time for voters and politicians to review it before it is sent to the House floor. In order to meet a deadline of Dec. 23, today's 1:30 p.m. public hearing comes before a full committee vote set for Tuesday. The four-member subcommittee that revealed the plan yesterday realized it didn't have time to take a 30-minute recess prior to voting on the proposal in order to provide 24 hours notice of the plan for today's public hearing.

"At this point, I don't understand if this plan is constitutional or unconstitutional," said Rep. Bob Perry, the lone Democrat on the subcommittee and the only vote against the plan.

"I know," Mirski said.

Along with a bill containing the redistricting proposal, Mirski said lawmakers are also planning on submitting a House Concurrent Order, which would not be subject to a veto by the governor and take the plan straight to Secretary of State Bill Gardner for implementation. In 2002, the Supreme Court stepped in and created the state's current House districts after a dispute between former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Mirski said the Legislature has a "clear constitutional argument for why the governor shouldn't be involved" in approving redistricting plans. Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he would likely have to implement the plan if it came to his desk via a concurrent order.

Pam Walsh, Gov. John Lynch's deputy chief of staff, said his office wants the redistricting plan to go through the normal bill process.

"Gov. Lynch believes that redistricting should be done by legislation as it always has because it's essential for public input, which is so important to this process," Walsh said.

Mirski said the plan presented yesterday was created in concert with other interested lawmakers and members of House leadership. The team kept House Speaker Bill O'Brien apprised of developments and frequently consulted House counsel Ed Mosca to determine the constitutionality of certain ideas, he said.

"I'm going to assume responsibility for the plan, but I'm going to tell you simultaneously I'm not the sole author," Mirski said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

Comments are not available for this story.