Providence commits to redistricting transparency in rebuff of state’s back room deals
“The idea of eliminating, or at least avoiding one-on-one meetings with current elected officials or potential elected officials and the consultant is something that we should be doing. Those types of meetings create the appearance of impropriety – at the very least – and if we’re talking about the hard earned trust this committee is trying to build with the community, that would undermine it.”
The Providence Committee on Ward Boundaries met online last night to decide on a consultant to help redraw the ward maps in the city, a once every ten years process based on the most recent United States Census. The boundaries of the Providence wards will help determine the contours of the 2022 Providence City Council elections later this year.
The Ward Boundary Committee, chaired by Providence resident Jessica Cigna, a senior data analyst, ran into controversy right away with the selection of Kimball Brace‘s Election Data Services (EDS) as consultant on the project. Cigna noted that EDS has the experience and regional knowledge to do the job, and the majority of the board members present agreed. However, board member Nicholas Freeman voted against EDS, noting the decades of controversy the company has engendered, nationwide and in Providence. EDS was responsible for the racist State Senate redistricting a decade ago that led to public outrage and a court order to reverse it.
“There’s been national coverage of EDS describing them in not very positive terms,” said Freeman, choosing his words carefully. “There are many people who do not view EDS as the most positive actors.” Freeman noted that many of the reforms brought to the current process of drawing ward boundaries in Providence happened as a direct result of the actions of EDS ten years ago.
Nevertheless, the committee voted to endorse the bid of EDS over the only other contractor to apply, ARCBridge Consulting Inc. The committee discussion and vote was an open process. This is a far cry from the way in which EDS and Kimball Brace were hired by the state. In the case of the state General Assembly leadership held secret meetings with Brace over the course of years and he was hired without public debate or input, ostensibly by the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) headed at the time by [former] Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello.
A more exciting and positive result of the meeting was a suggested amendment to the values document, which will guide the Ward Boundaries Committee as it performs its work. To understand the importance of the values document, you need to know that the General Assembly’s Commission on Reapportionment – the legislative body responsible for redistricting at the state level – does not have anything like a values document. As a result, the state commission has no obligation to do anything on redistricting other than follow the letter of the law – in this case a United States Supreme Court ruling mandating that districts contain roughly the same number of people and the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965.
Because the state commission never outlined its values, it was free to secretly ensure that all incumbent legislators were guaranteed to stay inside their districts. Worse, these legislators were allowed to politically strengthen their standing inside their districts, helping them when it comes to re-election. Secret meetings – held in the sub-basement of the State House, were offered to every state senator and representative, and most took advantage of the offer. During these meetings legislators were allowed to suggest what parts of their districts they would like to keep and what parts they would like to get rid of – in essence, they got to choose their own voters. Moreover, when UpriseRI issued an Access to Public Records Act request to determine which legislators took part in these secretive meetings, we were informed that there was no log kept. The meetings were held in secrecy. As a result the public will never know, with certainty, how these meetings affected the final statewide district maps.
The Providence Ward Boundaries Committee “values document” lists a series of factors that must be taken into account when redrawing ward boundaries. These factors include the legally required equality of population and the Voting Rights Act, but also requires that the maps respect the geographical integrity of neighborhoods and compactness, where possible. The values document further expressly forbids the residence of an incumbent or any political candidate or party from being considered as a criteria for drawing boundaries.
At Monday night’s meeting, Chair Cigna went beyond this. Taking the issue of secret meetings with the consultant head on, Cigna suggested that the values document be amended so that a log is kept of “all the meetings that we have with the consultant and a log of the consultant’s process and who they’re meeting with outside the committee.” She called these logs “important and critical.”
Committee member Nicholas Freeman agreed, saying that, “The idea of eliminating, or at least avoiding one-on-one meetings with current elected officials or potential elected officials and the consultant is something that we should be doing. Those types of meetings create the appearance of impropriety – at the very least – and if we’re talking about the hard earned trust this committee is trying to build with the community, that would undermine it.
“More than that, these types of meetings create, by their very nature, an inability to ensure that the charter reforms implemented in the last ten years and other things are being followed,” continued Freeman, adding that such meetings “violate the spirit of the Open Meetings Act if not the letter of the law…”
Given last night’s meeting, it seems apparent that the Providence Committee on Ward Boundaries is holding itself to a standard far above the state’s Committee on Reapportionment. The chairs of the state committee could learn a lot from the leadership of Providence’s Ward Boundaries Committee.
You can watch the committee meeting here: