Robert Gehrke: Utah’s first independent redistricting commission kicks off this week, but will its work matter?

The team will propose boundaries for Congress and Legislature, but legislators could still come up with their own gerrymander.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

This week, we’ll get a chance to see a little bit of Utah history being made.

Tuesday will mark the first official meeting of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission. And all it took to get here was years of stonewalling by Republican legislators before voters took matters into their own hands with a ballot initiative.

Before we get too carried away, it’s important to keep in mind what this commission is and what it isn’t. The 7-member panel will recommend boundaries for congressional, state legislative and state school board districts to the Legislature — which ultimately could adopt the commission’s maps or reject them altogether.

So what is the likelihood that lawmakers will take the maps seriously, how will the commission operate and how much input will you and I have?

To answer those questions, I went to Rex Facer II, a professor of public management at Brigham Young University who was chosen last month by Gov. Spencer Cox to chair the commission.

The meeting this week, Facer told me, will be mostly administrative, focusing on understanding open records laws and discussing the redistricting principles that were outlined in Proposition 4 — things like making districts compact, maintaining communities of interest, following geographic boundaries, not splitting cities and so forth.

The U.S. Census Bureau is now expected to release population data in late August and, after that, the commission will have until Nov. 15 to submit maps to the Legislature.

Here is the rest of our discussion (edited for space):

Gehrke: So between now and August, you’re kind of laying the groundwork, and that includes a series of public meetings, seven of them around the state, if I’m not mistaken?

Facer: Yes. Now, essentially because of the pandemic, all of them will be held with a Zoom component, so there will be an easy participation for folks, regardless of whether or not they want to come and see us in person. It’s one of the few advantages that came out of the pandemic.

Gehrke: Ten years ago when we went through this the Legislature set up a website where the public was able to submit maps. Will you be having that kind of public involvement piece again?

Facer: We will have something similar. We’re in the process of getting vendors lined up on mapping software that will facilitate allowing for the public to draw maps and submit them.

Gehrke: If you don’t get numbers until August that puts you on a tight timeframe.

Facer: That’s right. It gives us time to work on the front end to make sure the commission is functioning like a well-oiled machine, so to speak. But it does mean that once we get the data it is going to be a much tighter window than it historically would have been.

Gehrke: Are you looking at how commissions in other states have operated?

Facer: We have. Places like Arizona and California and Washington and Michigan have all been doing variations of independent commissions … And so we’re hoping that we’re learning from some of that.

At the same time, Utah is a unique place. Our commission is structured differently than the commissions in some of those other places. Some of [the differences] I think has been terrific. I really like the way that our commissioners have been very willing to work together [and] very open and willing to think carefully about this and not simply assume that we know what the answers are.

Gehrke: Have you done anything like this before? Were you involved in the process 10 years ago or is this your first time?

Facer: I didn’t submit any maps 10 years ago. As a professor, I paid attention to all of these kinds of things, but if you had asked me even three months ago how closely I was going to pay attention to the redistricting process, you would get a very different answer than you get today. It wasn’t on my radar screen as something that I was going to have to worry about other than as a concerned citizen. And so this has been very much an unexpected opportunity to serve, but one I’m grateful for.

Being the inaugural group that runs this, we really are setting a pattern that future commissions will hopefully be able to pay attention to and one that we hope the Legislature will pay attention to.

One of the things we’re very committed to is the notion of being fair, transparent and engaging with the public. And we hope that as a result of that, when we submit our maps to the Legislature, they’ll see those maps as having been vetted, not only by us as an independent commission, but more importantly by the broad public engagement that we will have had. And that that will really carry significant weight as they consider our maps and eventually, we hope, adopt our maps.

Gehrke: And there is the crux of the issue. At the end of the day, this is an advisory team. The Legislature doesn’t have to adopt your maps and they don’t really even have to vote on your maps. So what makes you think they will adopt them?

Facer: I think because of the gravitas of my fellow commissioners, I think that really will put some pressure [on legislators]. And because the legislative leaders were the ones who selected them, I think that there is some clear expectation that [the commission] will be listened to. But at the end of the day, the only thing that we can do is do good work and make sure the public knows it and then have the public hold the Legislature accountable.

Gehrke: You do have sort of an All-Star team [including former U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop; former Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham and retired judge William Thorne; former state Sens. Lyle Hillyard and Pat Jones; and N. Jeffrey Baker, a digital mapping expert], so I guess these members aren’t doing this just as a thought exercise.

Facer: That’s right. These are not folks who didn’t have anything better to do.

Gehrke: What is it that you think the governor saw in you that made him think you’d be the ideal chairman?

Facer: I think part of what they saw was somebody who was willing to shoot straight and think carefully about issues. I had the chance to serve on the Utah County Good Governance Commission with [current] Lt. Gov. [Deidre] Henderson. And she saw me work in that group, saw I could be trusted to to think carefully and to engage people in meaningful ways, that I was going to be thoughtful about people having a say things, I was going to listen and that I would then be able to help bring people together.

And I think that’s one of the things that this commission really has to do. We have to come together as one commission as opposed to seven individuals who have opinions. We want to have a unified voice.

Gehrke: The big debate both 10 years ago and 20 years ago was, do we want urban-rural split [in congressional districts], or do we want an urban district and a rural district? How do we balance these? Do you have any thoughts on the optimal solution?

Facer: I really don’t have any thoughts at this point. That’s going to be the kind of question we spend a fair amount of time thinking about. In some ways our districts — just because of the nature of the way the population is distributed — are going to have heavy population centers in every one of the districts. There’s no way of getting around the fact that places like southeastern Utah are sparsely populated. So whether it’s keeping eastern Utah with southwestern Utah or whether it’s some other mix, I don’t know how that’s going to shake out and I won’t have any idea until we start walking through the principles and until we start seeing the actual real, live data.

Gehrke: Maybe to wrap up, you can talk about the big picture. This is an important job, so discuss the gravity of this undertaking.

Facer: One of the things that really stands out to me is that these decisions … really have some high stakes, where people are willing to spend millions and millions of dollars to seek congressional seats and significant sums at the state level as well. And we want to treat that seriously, both in terms of making sure that the citizens know that when people are [representing] their districts they know it makes sense that we’ve brought them together, that it wasn’t just to accomplish some partisan political purpose, that it wasn’t simply a cabal that was trying to ram something down people’s throat, but that this is going to be a deliberative, thoughtful process.

We want the citizens of Utah to know that we’ve done the best we can to give them an honest voice in this process. … And at the end of the day, it’s the citizens of Utah that matter.

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