No secret redistricting

The Times-Picayune
July 26, 2009

Redrawing political districts after every Census is a crucial task that often helps determine how much political clout communities across the state will have in Congress, the state Legislature and other representative bodies.

That's why redistricting , as the process is called, should be conducted in the open and with extensive participation from citizens across the state.

Unfortunately, members of two legislative committees in charge of the process are opting for secrecy as they prepare for the 2010 redistricting -- and that's not an auspicious start.

The Committee on House and Governmental Affairs and the Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs have scheduled a closed-door workshop next month for members to discuss procedures and past court cases related to redistricting .

The state's open meetings law has an exception allowing for "informational presentations" to lawmakers, but no votes can be taken. The watchdog groups Public Affairs Research Council and Council for a Better Louisiana are criticizing the process, and lawmakers should reconsider and conduct the session in public.

Rep. Rick Gallot of Ruston, who chairs the House panel, said no political deals are being cut in the closed workshop. "I think it's a whole big deal about nothing," he said.

His counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Bob Kostelka of Monroe, said next month's meetings can be held in the open as far as he's concerned, but he'll go along with whatever Rep. Gallot decides. "It's not getting things off on the wrong foot," he said.

Both lawmakers are wrong.

Louisianians are likely to mistrust the process if legislators conduct it in secret, especially as many incumbents will surely be more concerned with using the process to safeguard their own political careers than with ensuring all state residents are fairly represented.

As PAR President Jim Brandt pointed out, "it's hard to imagine a valid reason for hiding" meetings about redistricting behind the narrow exception of the open meetings law.

That's true for every redistricting process ­­­-- but it should be especially true for the upcoming effort. Because of population changes caused by Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana may lose a congressional seat and metro New Orleans may see a shift in political representation within our region. That could change this region's clout in comparison to other parts of the state. An entirely open process and extensive citizen input are the only ways to avoid public mistrust in the process.

CABL President Barry Erwin said an issue as important as redistricting should be discussed in open sessions, and he's right. "Perception is a pretty big thing here," he said, adding that a closed meeting "is going to look bad."

That's something lawmakers should know by now.

Section: METRO
Page: B 06
Record Number: 424689141
Copyright, 2009, The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Used by NewsBank with Permission