Friday, November 19, 2010

Primer: county redistricting (to be discussed at Nov 30 meeting)


From: Steve Thomas, Chairman; DJ McGuire, Chair, Policy and Platform Committee

To: SCRC Membership

RE: Report on the makeup of the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors

Early next year, the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors will draw up new districts in response to the changes in population since 2001. This also gives the Board an opportunity to examine the current number of districts and Supervisors (seven). At least four alternatives (including the status quo) have been presented by various citizens, groups, and even Board members (note: presented does not mean endorsed). This report will examine each of them based on what will present the most representative and efficient government for the people of Spotsylvania.

The four alternatives presented are . . .
• Maintaining the status quo of seven members and seven districts
• Maintaining seven districts but add two At-Large Supervisors to the Board
• Increase the number of districts to eight and add one At-Large Supervisor
• Increase the number of districts to nine

Option 1 - Status quo: This option appears on the surface to be most sensible (no neighboring county has more than seven members). However, that does not take into account the amount of growth the county has recently experienced since the last Board enlargement (from five to seven) in the 1980s redistricting. At that time, the county population was roughly 35,000 – or 5,000 per district. One of the reasons the board was expanded to seven seats was to avoid districts of 7,000 people, which was considered problematic. Today, the average district contains over 17,000 residents.

More populated districts can be problematic for a number of reasons: with more people to serve, elected/appointed officials will be less responsive to the average citizen. The instinct toward centralized government action in order to maximize impact on the citizenry will also grow as the number of citizens represented grows.

Locally, meanwhile, as the seven districts have grown in average size from 7,000 to 17,000, Spotsylvania has suffered 16 property tax increases, with zero tax cuts.

Another concern from the 1980s was the fact that Berkeley and Livingston Districts would lose their rural character, and thus leave rural residents with no voice on the Board. Moving to seven seats prevented this for 30 years, but “suburbanization” is creeping up on them again. Alre*99*ady, Livingston’s northern border nearly reaches Route 3, and Berkeley will likely need to incorporate Fox Point, Lee’s Hill South, or the many subdivisions along Tidewater Trail to reach the necessary population levels. Adding any of these to the subdivisions current in Berkeley (Timberlake and Lancaster Gate) would greatly reduce the rural nature of the district, and lead to the very thing the 1980s expansion was enacted to stop.

Option 2 – Seven Districts and two At-Large Seats: This option has all of the objections of the status quo, with two additional drawbacks.

The introduction of At-Large seats will lead inevitably to Supervisors (as well as School Board Members and Planning Commissioners) being perceived unequally. The best example of this comes from Washington, DC, where the City Council has Ward representatives and At-Large representatives. Several times, Ward members have “moved up” to At-Large seats, creating and furthering the impression of a two-tiered Council. This is a precedent we should avoid in Spotsylvania.

Option 3 – Eight Districts and One At-Large Seat: This option is preferable to the first two in the matter of district size (each district would fall to roughly 15,000 citizens). However, the At-Large problem absent from the status quo would persist here, unless the At-Large seat were made the Chairman’s seat (at it is in Prince William and Fairfax). However, an At-Large Chair presents an additional problem in that the perception of the Chair’s power would be greater than the actual power (1 of 9 voting members). This could lead to greater frustration with the Chairman in particular, and with Spotsylvania government in general. This same problem would occur in the School Board and the Planning Commission.

Finally, there will be question of where the new district will be. There is a growing divergence in priorities between the eastern and western parts of the county. One new district could be seen as giving advantage to the west at the expense of the east (or vice versa). Real or perceived regional imbalance should be minimized, not exacerbated.

Option 4 – Nine Districts: Under this option each district would fall to roughly 13,000 citizens, a reduction of nearly 25% from the current 17,000. It would be the best way to reduce the size of districts without making dramatic changes that are outside precedent for local government in Virginia. Moreover, without At-Large seats, all Supervisors (and/or School Board Members and Planning Commissioners) will be perceived equally. Finally, with two new districts, both east and west will likely get one new seat each, preserving regional balance.

The history of the country and the county provide compelling evidence for an increase in districts from seven. Neither the status quo nor Option 2 does that. Option 2 also opens up a new can of worms with at-large seats. Option 3 still has the at-large issue, and the benefit from an additional district is eroded by the regional imbalance it could cause. Only Option 4 increases the number of districts while preserving balance within the Board and the regions. For these reasons, the best thing for the Board of Supervisors to do when they redistrict is to increase the number of districts from seven to nine.

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At November 19, 2010 at 5:34 PM , Blogger Larry G said...

Nice analysis.

one question and one point.

which option best maintains the two rural districts in their approximate geographic shape as now?

There are several different styles of governance available in the State Code.

Would you consider weighing in on comparing and contrasting them?


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