TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. —The redistricting process for Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca is getting into full swing. Two respective groups are redrawing the city’s wards and the county’s legislature districts, both underpinned by values of fairness and transparency. However, the county’s redistricting process is markedly more defined to ensure such principles guide the maps that are drawn.
The county level election districts will be drawn up by a nine-member Independent Redistricting Commission composed of volunteer community members approved by the county Legislature through an application process. The City of Ithaca’s wards will be redrawn by the City Redistricting Working Group. Its five members were appointed by outgoing Mayor Svante Myrick.
Chairing both of these groups is Henrik “Hank” Dullea.
Dullea was formerly Cornell University Vice President of Community Relations and served as the Chief of Operations for former New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo. He was an obvious favorite to chair the county’s redistricting commission, having previously held the position in 2011. Dullea also served as a member of the last group to redraw the lines of the city wards in 2011.
Independent Redistricting Commission vs the Working Group
Applications for the County’s redistricting commission opened in August 2021 and were reviewed by the County Legislature’s Government Operations Committee, chaired by Legislator Amanda Champion. The committee then made a recommendation for which nine applicants should serve on the County Legislature, which were unanimously approved at the Nov. 16 meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature.
Tompkins County’s Independent Redistricting Commission had its first official meeting on December 14, 2021, when Republican Jeffrey True was voted in as vice-chair of the commission. Of the other commissioners, seven are democrats including Dullea, and one does not affiliate with either of the major parties. Dullea encouraged the choice of True as Vice-Chair “in order to emphasize again the independent nature of the commission.” (Or possibly due to an offer to bring coffee and donuts to various meetings.)
The group must adhere to New York’s open meetings laws meaning that any inclined person is able to attend any meeting of the county commission. All matters concerning the county redistricting must be discussed at publicly open meetings, save for executive sessions.
To usher in the New Year with a series of public input sessions, the first of which was held Jan. 11.
Dullea was informed by the City’s Attorney Ari Lavine that Ithaca’s redistricting working group does not need to follow the “precise requirements” of the open meetings laws. The first of the city’s meetings, which was in December, is (apparently) not available on YouTube or the City of Ithaca website, as the county meetings are.
Dullea said that he plans on conducting both the county and city redistricting the same way, with “transparency and fairness” despite the relaxed rules afforded to the city’s working group.
“As far as I’m concerned, the process should be the same for both,” said Dullea. He added, “I want to see that we have our information out there for the public in the same way that we were putting them online for the county.”
Ithaca’s City Redistricting Working Group is composed of a member of each of the cities wards which, in addition to Dullea, includes former city Alderpersons Seph Murtagh and Chris Proulx; Jared Pittman; and Katie Sims who sought a position on the city’s common council in the Fall of 2021 through a special selection process to fill a vacancy left by former Alderperson Steve Smith.
Challenges to come in the redistricting process
The city and county redistricting process is charged with making districts that preserve communities of interest without advantaging any political party, while also achieving similarly sized populations are represented by elected officials. Balancing these factors is the perennial challenge of redistricting, and the source of bi-partisan friction that dominates the national stories of map drawing.
While democrat-heavy Tompkins County hasn’t been afflicted with the same partisan tensions as state and national redistricting efforts, a new logistical challenge has reared its head for New York’s redistricting efforts. New York State’s municipal home rule law was changed to reduce the allowable percent deviation between the most populous district and least populous district from 10% to 5%. The national standard being the former, as per Dullea.
The narrower margin may sway the county commission to introduce or subtract a seat from the county legislature.
Overall, Tompkins County’s population has increased since the 2010 census, going from 101,564 to 105,740 in 2020. But the growth has not been even across it, being largely concentrated in the City and the Town of Ithaca; the latter grew by 12.15%, adding 1,968 people to its population, and the city growing 6.98% with another 2,094 residents.
Tompkins County IT Director, Greg Potter, told commissioners at the Dec. 14 meeting that after reviewing the data his department had prepared, the population swell in Ithaca would make it challenging for the commission to remain at 14 legislator seats in the county.
“My quick assessment is 14 is really going to be very difficult because that alone,” said Potter.
The challenge appears to largely be connected to the aim of keeping legislature districts entirely within the City of Ithaca, as the commission achieved in the 2011 redistricting process. The ideal population for fourteen legislative districts based on 2020 census data would be 7,533, and the challenges ahead of the county’s Redistricting Commission may most strongly be expressed in the percent deviation from this ideal.
Keeping four legislature districts in the City of Ithaca would deviate those district populations 9% over the ideal population; five legislature districts would result in around an 11% deviation beneath the ideal population — both far from the new 5% restriction.
Maps prepared by Tompkins County’s GIS Division show that Legislative District 4 of the county — which is largely situated within Ithaca’s College Town neighborhood — has a population that is 18.72% larger than the ideal population of the district for 2020, whereas it used to be just 2.12 percent larger than the ideal population for 2010.
Legislative District 9, which encompasses the Town of Groton and portions of the Towns of Lansing and Dryden, now is 11.44% below the ideal population for 2022, where it used to be 4.62 percent beneath the ideal population in 2010. Comparing Legislative Districts 9 and 4 represents a 30.16% deviation between the two from the ideal population.
The last redistricting process left those two districts with a 6.74% difference, well within the allowable 10% deviation. But the new 5% allowable deviation guiding this redistricting process and the large growth that has happened within the City and Town of Ithaca will make it challenging for the Redistricting Commission to keep Legislature Districts entirely within the City of Ithaca, as it did in the last redistricting process.
The county charter allows from 11 to 19 legislature seats, and in the last redistricting process the county legislature voted to reduce the number from 15 to 14 partially to group the four districts entirely within the City of Ithaca. If a change to the number of seats in the legislature does become seriously considered, Dullea said that the current body would be consulted before a decision is made as they were in the last redistricting process.
There has been no public discussion of the redistricting work to come to the city’s, or maps made available depicting the population changes in each of the wards. A joint meeting of the county’s redistricting commission and the city’s working group will virtually meet and hold a public input session on January 25th at 5:30 p.m.
The idea of reducing the number of wards in the City of Ithaca from five to four may be up for discussion. The idea has been percolating at least since the last redistricting process in 2011, mostly motivated by the potential benefits of having coterminous city and county districts. The hope would be to improve voter engagement and reduce confusion for what districts voters are represented in.
It’s possible for the city and the county to open this discussion back up again and move to reduce or increase the number of city wards to achieve districts that would remove confusion from voters, although this would require a referendum on the ballot and add some complexity to the City elections set to take place in 2022.
Dullea said that the county redistricting commission and the City’s working group are aiming to complete their work by the end of the spring.
Correction (01/27/2022): The referendum for determining if the City of Ithaca would potentially add or remove a ward was originally written as having to take place in 2023, not 2022.