Council Watch: City’s core dissected
 Alibi V.21 No.9 • March 1-7, 2012 

Council Watch

Core Dissection

Council President Trudy Jones alerted speakers at the Wednesday, Feb. 22 meeting that new green, yellow and red lights would let them know when their two minutes were up.

That buzzer got a workout as more than 100 city residents took their turns. Redistricting dominated the meeting. By far, most of those present did not support the plan Councilor Dan Lewis put up for approval. It dissected Isaac Benton's District 3, with pieces tacked onto neighboring districts. D3 includes Downtown, Barelas and the UNM area.

A handful of residents also asked the Council to reject a report about the Police Oversight Commission. They said the organization that wrote it, MGT of America, is biased in favor of law enforcement. If councilors voted to accept the study, speakers said, the Council would be supporting the findings. The vote did not split along party lines as it usually does: Debbie O’Malley sided with four Republicans who were in favor of accepting the report, while Lewis joined the Dems. It passed on a 5-4 vote. Jones said by accepting it, the Council is not necessarily declaring agreement.

Folks from the construction industry turned out en masse to support extending the city’s moratorium on impact fees for builders. A couple of people said the city should reinstate the fees because they help maintain and improve neighborhoods. The Council extended the moratorium for another 18 months.

With a unanimous vote, councilors approved an amendment that could help preserve historic buildings. The move gives the city’s Landmarks and Urban Conservation Commission the ability to review proposed demolitions. This would not take away personal property rights but allow the city to work with property owners to find alternatives to tearing down landmarks.

The next meeting is set for 5 p.m. on Monday, March 5, in the Council Chambers in the basement of City Hall.

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Lewis' redistricting bill adds a Westside seat and parcels out the city's core, which is typically a left-leaning region.

Under state law, redistricting must happen after every 10-year census. A committee reviewed options generated by Research & Polling, Inc. and narrowed them down to eight recommendations. Councilors met as the Committee of the Whole to talk over the issue on Jan. 19. They approved the D3 carving job over an alternate that would have eliminated Michael Cook’s Northeast Heights District 7.

With the plan, O’Malley’s North Valley district takes on Downtown and Barelas. The UNM area will be added to Rey Garduño’s region, which includes Nob Hill and the International District.

The four Democrat councilors—Benton, O’Malley, Ken Sanchez and Garduño—favored preserving the city’s core.

O’Malley and Benton tried to present redistricting suggestions for consideration but had no luck. O’Malley said Lewis' plan will make her district the size of a small nation and too diverse to be adequately represented by one councilor. O’Malley and others said the Heights’ District 7 can be more easily absorbed by its surrounding districts, which have similar history and makeup.

Lewis had a heated exchange with Javier Benavidez, president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association. (He also served as former City Councilor Martin Heinrich’s assistant.) Lewis demanded “proof or evidence” from Benavidez that the redistricting proposal was political maneuvering that ensures a Republican majority on the Council.
Councilor Lewis vigorously defended his proposal and said it was not politically motivated. None of the maps were perfect, he said. The plan was vetted by the city’s legal department and meets all the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act, he added, and that's why it’s the best option.

Garduño went head-to-head with Lewis, calling the plan gerrymandering and saying it dilutes the minority voice in Albuquerque. He pointed out that Republican-appointed committee members voted exactly alike when ranking the options, while the Democrats were “all over the map,” showing they represented real people.

At one point near the end of the meeting, another argument flared up. Benton said putting 23 of the city's 27 federally designated “pockets of poverty” into one district is a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Councilor Don Harris said redistricting is a political decision and they had the right to make it.

The two exchanged heated words, causing President Jones to raise her voice and remind the politicians that Council policy and procedure does not allow personal attacks. She took the vote and quickly adjourned the meeting as the hands of the clock approached midnight.

The Council vote rang along party lines with five Republican councilors—Jones, Cook, Lewis, Brad Winter and Harris—voting in favor of the plan.

Members of the public who stuck it out booed and said Republican councilors should be ashamed of themselves.

The public and councilors made several references to the issue being resolved in District Court.

The bill heads to Mayor Richard Berry’s desk for signature. Benton will serve until the end of his 2013 term.
No surprise here. After watching the nonpartisan Council become partisan with its routine 5-4 vote split, I had slim hopes right-leaning councilors would take the time to look for a compromise.

Redistricting is political. It’s about boundaries, and the winners get to hold a majority and write the history books for years to come. Still, it’s hard to understand how five elected officials can sit through hours of testimony and meetings and still make a decision that is counter to what the public says it wants.

Who is going to represent disenfranchised minority voters from South San Jose to Barelas to Wells Park to the North Valley? They'll be competing among themselves for infrastructure and attention. That’s a problem when all but a couple of the city’s federally designated Metropolitan Redevelopment Areas—or “pockets of poverty”—are lumped together in one immense district.

Democrat Councilors agreed that the Westside needs another councilor. O’Malley and Benton proposed compromises that gave the Westside three districts, kept the Downtown core intact and joined like districts, such as the mid-Northeast Heights District 7 with adjacent middle-class neighborhoods.

These proposed compromises make sense. Several Westside residents even spoke against the plan the Council passed, saying it was important to keep the historic core district intact. We will continue covering this story in District Court, no doubt.

Finally, the Council has to stop putting the most important item at end of the agenda. The redistricting discussion started at 9 p.m., four hours after dozens of people signed up to speak at the 5 p.m. meeting.