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Redistricting plan could be left to courts

Last modified: 3/30/2012 12:00:00 AM
One day after the Republican-controlled Legislature pushed through a House redistricting plan over Democratic Gov. John Lynch's veto, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party said 'it isn't a question of whether there will be a lawsuit' challenging the constitutionality of the 10-year plan to redraw districts for the state's 400 House members.

'It's a question of how many lawsuits will be filed when you consider the number of towns and communities affected by (House Speaker) Bill O'Brien's unconstitutional plan,' press secretary Collin Gately said yesterday. At this time, the state party is 'going to be reviewing options,' he said.

This won't be the first time New Hampshire's legislative redistricting has ended up in legal limbo. Ten years ago, former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed plans brought forward by the Republican Legislature and the courts had to step in to draw up the House districts.

Lynch's concerns about the plan put forward this year by House Republican leaders included the decision to combine some city wards with neighboring towns - such as lumping in Concord's Ward 5 with Hopkinton - and to deny 62 towns their own representative despite having the necessary population. House Republican leaders said tricky math made those decisions inevitable in order to ensure each House member represents about the same number of people, but others in their party proposed alternatives that were voted down.

Lynch said last Friday he vetoed the bill 'because it violates the constitutional principle for equal representation and local representation; it is inconsistent in its treatment of similarly situated towns and wards, and it unnecessarily changes the boundaries of existing districts.'

The House originally passed the redistricting bill with a veto-proof margin, but the initial Senate vote fell short of a two-thirds majority, with four Republicans voting against the House plan. Sen. Tom DeBlois, a Manchester Republican, told his colleagues on the Senate floor earlier this month that the bill 'does not do justice to Manchester' by putting two of its city wards into a district with Litchfield. DeBlois and Republican Sen. David Boutin of Hooksett maintained their opposition to the bill this week.

The Wednesday night vote saw two Republican senators, Ray White of Bedford and Jeanie Forrester of Meredith, switch their votes in order to override Lynch's veto.

White said 'the first time through I was more able to look at the merits of the bill,' and 'I thought there were some areas where (the House) could have done a better job.'

But when it came time to potentially sustain Lynch's veto and block the bill from becoming law, White backed off. He said he first voted against the bill because 'there was little consequence at the time,' but tradition dictates that the Senate and House pass each other's redistricting plans.

'Since the House made their statement on the veto and it is their redistricting plan, it really wasn't proper for me as a senator to stick my nose in their business,' White said.

Forrester had initially voted against the plan because she said the House members in her district had asked her to oppose it. Meredith is one of the towns highlighted by Lynch that would not have its own representative despite having the requisite population. The plan instead puts Meredith in a four-seat district with Gilford, which is only contiguous by water.

'The second time around they went along with the plan and I supported it,' Forrester said, noting that 'normally the House stays out of the Senate and the Senate stays out of the House.'

Republican Rep. Alida Millham of Gilford did switch her vote to support the redistricting plan on the override, but Rep. Robert Greemore, a Meredith Republican, voted both times against the plan. The other Meredith representative, Republican Colette Worsman, supported the plan on both votes.

Greemore said he told Forrester he disagreed with the House leadership's proposal but 'I don't have any control over her.'

'They did not give us the representation that we require,' Greemore said. 'I was willing to go against leadership. I'm still willing to go against leadership because I thought the way they did it was unconstitutional.'

There had been discussion that the Manchester Republican representatives would band together to support Lynch's veto because the plan combines a city district with Litchfield. When six Manchester Republicans decided to break with the group and vote to override, however, Millham said she decided to also side with the majority.

'I do a lot of voting against the leadership and I decided it wasn't going to make any difference. I just felt that they had gotten the votes,' Millham said, noting that none of her constituents contacted her about it. 'If the Manchester group had hung together, I probably would have voted the other way. . . . I guess I was a wimp.'

Concord's city council and Manchester's aldermen had both voted to publicly oppose the House redistricting plan. The mayors said yesterday the topic will be brought up at their upcoming meetings but neither speculated about potential legal action.

'The only thing I can say with absolute certainty is . . . this will be an item we will be discussing,' said Concord Mayor Jim Bouley. 'I've asked the city solicitor to be prepared to discuss it.'

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, a Republican, said 'we certainly will have discussion about that on Tuesday.'

'There's no commonality between Litchfield and Manchester other than a border,' he said. 'They're two different communities.'

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


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