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Faulty premise mars County redistricting plans

By The Mercury

Riley County commissioners are required by law to redraw the boundaries of their districts every 10 years so that those districts reflect population shifts. Commissioners are doing so now in preparation for the 2012 elections.

Unfortunately, they’re operating from a faulty premise.

Among their priorities is ensuring that all three districts contain rural as well as city residents. The 3rd District now represents only Manhattan residents. Commissioners also seem willing to abandon the concept of contiguity; that will likely leave residents wondering which district they’re in and who represents them.

The map of one of the favored proposals contains “islands,” one of which puts precincts 4-4 and 4-5 (in the Warner Park area) into a part of the Second District entirely surrounded by other districts.

Commissioners’ rationale is that population shifts and Riley County’s unusual shape make the changes necessary.

Riley County isn’t one of the state’s cookie-cutter rectangles. But we’ll bet that if commissioners would put less emphasis on mixing rural and urban residents into each district, they’d have other options. More important, the ensuing districts just might better represent distinct areas of the county. Our society is becoming more homogenous, certainly, but that doesn’t render obsolete the concept of communities of interest.

Making all the districts about the same size in terms of population is mandated; choosing to make the citizenry in each more demographically like the others is contrived and doesn’t reflect the demographic makeup of the county. Given Manhattan’s size and population density, there’s no reason it shouldn’t have a district. By the same token, there are enough rural residents in the north part of the county to merit at least a predominantly rural district.

What’s more, making the districts homogenous defeats the purpose of having separate districts. Commissioners might be better served to pursue eliminating the district concept entirely and having County Commission seats elected at-large, as is the case with the Manhattan City Commission.

To their credit, county commissioners do achieve population parity in the proposed districts; At present, the 2nd District, represented by Al Johnson, has about 7,000 more residents than the 3rd District, represented by Karen McCulloh; and about 4,000 more residents than the 1st District, represented by Dave Lewis. The gaps in the proposed maps provide for variations of 135 and 153 residents, respectively.

That’s good work. But we’re confident commissioners can do better. We think they can achieve similar parity while showing more respect to the demographic differences in the county. Citizens are entitled to equal representation, but all citizens in all districts don’t need to look and think alike.

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