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Committee favors fewer commissioners

Fewer county commissioners in single-member districts would provide increased accountability and better name recognition, according to the Reapportionment Committee.
During the April 2 meeting, members reviewed maps of Washington County’s population divided into district totals of seven, nine, 10, 13 and 15.
GIS Specialist Chris Pape said he tried to use major routes as the boundaries, but including residents both within and outside of the city limits in some of the districts can’t be avoided. Another consideration is the smaller the number of districts, the more square feet they encompass.
“There is a point of diminishing return in this process,” Pape said. “You have to decide the number of commissioners and lay out the districts from there.”
The primary purpose of redistricting and reapportionment is to ensure commissioners are representing equal numbers of voters. During the 2012 process, the commission voted to keep the maximum-allowed 25 board members, divided among 10 districts. While each commissioner is representing an approximately equal amount of constituents, the number of commissioners per district ranges from one to three.
“What is the reason people believe the commission needs to be reduced?” Commissioner Skip Oldham asked.
In response, a couple of first-time commissioners shared comments they heard from constituents during the recent campaign.
“It’s based on the last commission not being able to reach a consensus,” Commissioner Matthew Morris said.
Unfamiliarity with their officials is another reason, Commissioner Joe Wise said. “When knocking on doors, I got the sense that people weren’t confident in the (identity of) commissioners representing their districts.”
In addition, Wise said there is a perception among constituents that districts with more than one commissioner have increased voting power.
Wise made a motion to to establish 13 districts represented by one commissioner each. Oldham seconded the motion, but it was defeated in a voice vote.
Commissioner Robbie Tester said moving to 13 commissioners is cutting the representation in half, which he worries is going too far.
A small number of commissioners also would make the work flow too burdensome, according to Oldham.
“The next thing I smell is needing to hire an administrator, and the last thing this county needs is another layer of bureaucracy.”
Commissioner Lee Chase also expressed concerns about the workload. “The populace does believe we’re costing the county more with a larger number, but I want to be sure we don’t find ourselves four years from now needing to hire help because we have cut off too many arms,” he said.
Morris said a recent survey indicated 70 percent of commissioners were happy with a range of 13 to 15 board members.
Commissioner Gary McAllister spoke in support of 15 single-member districts. “It would be better representation and more accountability,” he said. “It would also help the committee structure, and no administrative help would be needed.”
Wise made a motion to recommend 15 districts represented by one commissioner each to the full board. Oldham seconded the motion, which passed with Tester opposed. The full board will consider the recommendation during its April meeting, but changes would not go into effect until the 2018 election.
Increasing the number of districts to 15 would reduce the deviation in populations from approximately 10 percent to 3 percent, which would be the county’s best argument for changing the number of commissioners and districts in the middle of the 10-year redistricting cycle.
“It’s not so much a matter as having permission from the comptroller as it is considering the county’s legal position in the event of a citizen’s filing litigation to try and stop it,” County Attorney Tom Seeley said.
Making the changes for the purpose of reducing deviation and improving representation would be the county’s strongest legal position in such an event, according to Seeley.