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State law speeds districting plans

The Gazette
September 7, 2007


A misunderstanding over state law has dramatically shortened the timetable to complete districting plans for electing supervisors in Linn and Washington counties.

Iowa officials say the counties' districting plans should be done by Sept. 15, but some Linn officials contend their reading of the law gives them until Feb. 15.

There's no way either county can have its plan done, hold a public hearing and win approval by Sept. 15.

Iowa law is unclear on the penalty for failing to meet the deadline. What has happened in such cases is that the state has the Legislative Services Agency draw a district plan, taking the local input out of the picture.

This week, after many phone calls, an understanding was struck between Linn County and state officials with a goal of finishing the districting maps and plan by the end of October. The Attorney General's Office indicated the same timeline would apply to Washington County.

The counties in July approved electing supervisors by districts, with only people living in each district voting on the supervisors for that district. Each county will have five districts. Temporary redistricting commissions have been appointed in each county to equally split its population into five districts. Both commissions will gather Monday - Linn's for its third meeting and Washington's for its first.

Linda Langenberg, Iowa assistant secretary of state for

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Districts/State agency won't draw the maps

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elections and former Linn auditor, said the law is confusing on when the maps have to be done. Bob Brammer, spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's Office, agreed.

Iowa law was changed in 2002 to state that when a special election changes supervisor election methods from at large, Plan 1, to districts/districts, Plan 3, the deadline to have the districts finished is Sept. 15, Langenberg said. The Feb. 15 date has to do with redistricting for supervisors for the decennial census, she said.

"The first we heard of this disagreement was this week," said Gary Jarvis, assistant Linn attorney. "The commission will go forward and try to get the process completed by approximately the end of October. ... It's a practical solution to a difficult situation that takes into account the caucus situation and our need to go forward in an orderly fashion."

"It's not that easy of a law to read. This situation will cause us, with the Secretary of State's Office, to work with the Legislature to clean it up," Brammer said.

State officials admitted a concern that the districting process be finished ahead of Iowa's Jan. 14 precinct caucuses, which may have to be moved up because of position-jockeying by other states.

The Linn redistricting commission has gotten all kinds of advice that it should ask the state's Legislative Services Agency to draw the five district maps. It turns out that was bad advice.

The commission, Langenberg said, cannot ask the Legislative Services Agency to draw even one map.

"The LSA is not going to draw their maps for them. They will provide technical guidance regarding standards," she said.

The agency would draw district maps only if a local plan cannot be formulated.

With that possibility gone, Steve Jackson, commission chairman, has asked Linn Auditor Joel Miller to help with the mapping. Miller said he's been asked to provide four scenarios for the five districts. He earlier had said he did not want to do that.

"I wanted to avoid allegations of a conflict of interest," he said. "Unfortunately, it appears that I'm going to have to be involved. The LSA will not do it. Going to a consultant isn't any better than going to my office to do it." Jackson believes the late October deadline will work.

"The commission wants to move ahead in a deliberate, fair and open manner, and now we are going to be able to do that without being rushed," he said.