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December 22, 2011 9:30 am

Redistricting: County, cities join Meeteetse in criticizing legislators’ plan

Written by CJ Baker

Park County commissioners and the mayors of Powell and Cody have joined with Meeteetse leaders to oppose a proposed redistricting plan that would split the Meeteetse area between two state lawmakers’ districts.

The proposal was crafted by the Big Horn Basin’s nine legislators, whose primary goal in redrawing their districts has been to ensure the Basin keeps six House and three Senate seats. The boundaries must be redrawn every 10 years with each Census, and the 2010 count found that four of the Basin’s six House districts — where population growth was slow — no longer have enough people in them. The problem spills over into the Senate districts, too, which are each made up of two House districts.

The local legislators’ plan keeps nine legislative seats in the Basin, but members of the Meeteetse community are unhappy it would also move their town and many rural residents from House District 24 — made up of western and southern Park County — into House District 28, which contains Hot Springs County and parts of Big Horn and Fremont counties. HD 28 currently is represented by Lorraine Quarberg, R-Thermopolis.

The roughly 200 residents south and southwest of Meeteetse would split off and remain in HD 24, currently represented by Sam Krone, R-Cody.

“The people in Meeteetse, and of course the town council, is pretty much against this redistricting proposal,”  Meeteetse Mayor Andy Abbott told commissioners on Dec. 6. “We’d just as soon stay a part of Park County — not that the Legislature pays that much attention to us down there anyway.”

The Meeteetse town council passed a resolution saying that being split and put in with Hot Springs County “would greatly diminish” its representation.

Commissioners unanimously backed Meeteetse’s position, voting to send a letter urging legislators to keep Meeteetse whole and in a Park County district. Powell Mayor Scott Mangold and Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown sent similar letters backing Meeteetse’s position, citing close cooperation among the three municipalities.

Commissioners’ comments and the mayors’ letters point to a couple of the principles that the state redistricting committee adopted to guide the process: keeping communities of interest together and following county boundaries.

But those aren’t the only rules.

The most hard and fast requirement — and the one that galled commissioners — is that no district have 10 percent more people than another. That means no district can have 5 percent more or less people than the average district.

“Five percent (up or down from the average) is just a line in the sand. Arbitrary,” said Commissioner Loren Grosskopf. “The spirit of the law shouldn’t dictate the five.”

It was the U.S. Supreme Court that drew the line in the sand, finding a plan with a deviation of 10 percent or less is presumed to follow “one man, one vote,” principles. Deviating by more than 10 percent has to be justified.

“We shouldn’t have it so strict with no flexibility (that it will) injure one area just because another area has a certain percentage,” said Commissioner Dave Burke.

But, countered Park County Elections Deputy Mike Demoney, if Meeteetse were allowed to deviate, other communities will ask for exceptions too.

“It has to start somewhere,” Demoney said of the 5 percent cut-off.

Park County Clerk Jerri Torczon said officials have gone “round and round” with redistricting ideas, but they are limited by Census data.

State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, has compared the process to squeezing a balloon: you can tuck in one district’s boundary, but that will force another boundary to bulge somewhere else.

In this case, Meeteetse can be put back in Park County, “however, then you have Hot Springs County (House District 28) going from Shoshoni clear up to Shell or possibly Willwood,” said Torczon.

It would require less shuffling to keep the Meeteetse area whole by moving all of it to House District 28; it’s the splitting of the Meeteetse area that has proven most controversial.

“I don’t want them split,” said Krone in an interview last month.

“Even if they go to (House District) 28, I want them to be one block,” he said. If Meeteetse could also stay with Park County representation, “that would be excellent,” he said in an interview last month.

“Even though there’s been a lot of work done, it’s still early in the process,” Krone said.

Krone and Coe have been working on a plan to keep the community in Park County.

House District 25 Rep. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, said in an interview this month that he wants all nine Basin legislators to get together and discuss what should be done with Meeteetse.

Putting the community and those 600 residents back in Park County “would tear up the plan that we have and cause us to offer a whole new and different plan,” said Bonner, who also is the Powell Tribune’s publisher.

Even with Shoshoni and Meeteetse brought into House District 28, the district is precariously close to the 5 percent threshold (having eight people more than the minimum).

Under the proposal, the only district that still has more than a handful of people to give is Bonner’s H.D. 25, which includes Powell and the surrounding area.

The new Powell-area district already sheds Frannie-Deaver area residents to House District 26, covering northern Big Horn County and currently represented by Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell. Bonner expressed reluctance at moving more Powell-area residents to other districts.

“Those are people that ... Powell is their home. They go to school here, they do their business here, they have jobs here,” he said.

Bonner acknowledged that it’s hard to say the district matters given that he and other legislators have told citizens they don’t look at their address when responding to concerns.

“We will represent everyone and anyone, but I’m thinking of people who might want to run for office, people who have always voted for a representative in this core area and not go into a totally different area,” Bonner said. “But you know, the same thing is being asked of Meeteetse.”

Krone said he and Coe will present their new ideas to the other Big Horn Basin legislators in early January.

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