Group files redistricting initiative

Published May 6, 2009 7:15 pm
Independent Commission » Volunteer coalition aims to take politics out of the process
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A grass-roots group of volunteers -- the Fair Boundaries Coalition -- aims to loosen the Legislature's grip on the redistricting process that occurs every 10 years after new census numbers come out.

On Wednesday the Coalition filed an initiative petition with the Lieutenant Governor's Office that would put the establishment of an independent redistricting commission to a public vote in November 2010.

Right now, by state constitutional mandate, that task falls to legislators themselves.

"For far too long that power has been abused and misused by the Legislature," said Tooele attorney Merrill Nelson, a Republican and former state representative from 1991 to 1992.

"We need to send legislators a message that they are not our adversaries, neither are they our masters," Nelson told the group of 30 supporters gathered in the Capitol rotunda.

Lisa Watts Baskin, a Davis County attorney and also a Republican, drafted the carefully worded initiative that steers clear of violating the state Constitution. Lawmakers would retain the right to accept or reject the commission's recommendations.

"Up til now, Utah legislators have been able to arbitrarily and favorably draw boundary lines of their districts," Watts Baskin said Wednesday, "effectively picking their own voters to ensure their election."

House Speaker David Clark, a Republican from Santa Clara, welcomes the chance for statewide dialogue on the issue.

"I'm going to be fully engaged in this process," Clark said. "This will allow an opportunity to explain to the public the fundamentals of how this has worked in our state without litigation."

In an opinion piece published in The Tribune earlier this month, Clark said there are powerful arguments for leaving the task up to the Legislature.

"Collectively, the Legislature has a tremendous knowledge of the geography and demographics of the state and the people they represent. How could a commission ever hope to duplicate this knowledge?" he wrote.

Besides, Clark reasoned, "All legislators are elected by the people and are ultimately accountable to the people each election cycle for their votes and conduct while in office."

Nikki Norton, executive director of Fair Boundaries, said that more than 100 volunteers have already signed on to start collecting the 95,000 signatures needed to land the measure on the 2010 ballot.

"It's going to be a huge job," Norton said. "But I have no doubt we can do it."

Over the past few years, Democratic lawmakers have tried to accomplish the same goal through legislation, only to see their bills die in the powerful Rules Committee.

There currently are 21 states that have some form of independent redistricting commission.

Cori Redstone, a board member of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, hopes Utah will join that group.

"I'm very concerned about the lack of representation for my race in the Legislature," Redstone said.

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The Fair Boundaries Coalition plan:

Establish an independent 11-member commission

Keep communities of interest intact

Ensure an open and transparent process

Respect existing city and county boundaries

Exclude individuals with obvious conflicts of interest

For more information, log on to http://www.fairboundaries.org

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