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Ross says he’ll serve on Pierce County redistricting panel; first meeting is Wednesday

Post by Kris Sherman / The News Tribune on March 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
March 28, 2011 5:35 pm

The “will he or won’t he” speculation is history.

Democrat Sam Ross says he’ll serve on the Pierce County Districting Committee,  ending speculation about what might happen if he did not.

The committee’s first meeting is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pierce County Annex, 2401 S. 35th Street. The meeting is open to the public.

Because the County Charter is vague on the issue, County Council attorney Susan Long said it was possible the committee would be invalid if one of its four members resigned.

On a split vote in an acrimonious meeting, the council’s Republican majority agreed last week to appoint Ross, along with Democrat Ken Blair and Republicans Deryl McCarty and Mike Abernathy, to the Districting Committee.

That left the council’s two Democrats – Rick Talbert and Tim Farrell – fuming. They believed their colleagues should have let them pick the Democrats who will serve on the Districting Committee, and they criticized the council majority for selecting a man who sent the council an e-mail saying his work schedule would prevent him from serving.

The committee is charged with overseeing the process through which the county’s councilmanic district lines are drawn. The redistricting is done to rebalance populations within districts following the decennial Census.

The County Charter says the four members appointed by the County Council will pick a fifth person to serve as the Districting Committee chair. The charter has “no Plan B” for what might happen if one of the appointed members declined to serve, Long said last week.

All this is important because the committee and its chair pick a Districting Master who will formulate the plan to redraw councilmanic boundaries. That person, the charter says, must be someone qualified by education, training and experience” to draw up a redistricting plan.

The idea is to equally distribute council districts according to population and keep residents of cities, towns or communities together in same district, without splitting them.

If the committee can’t agree on a Districting Master, the council may appoint one.

The prospect of the GOP-dominated council appointing the man or woman who will draw the lines does not make Democrats happy. And they worried that could happen if Ross couldn’t serve.

Once the plan is drawn, the committee is to adopt it. It can be amended only by four votes of the committee. If the committee doesn’t act within 15 days, the plan “shall be deemed adopted,” the charter says.

All this is done on a fairly tight timeline.  The Districting Committee has 30 days to meet and appoint the District Master. He or she then has two months to do the work.

By e-mail, Ross informed Long and other council staff members he could attend the committee’s first meeting and thanked them for being flexible with the time and place to make is easier for him to be there.

“I do also want to say to everyone that, apart from the ‘interesting’ circumstances around me being on the committee, it is an honor and a privilege to serve…he wrote.

“I am hoping to do the county proud…” he added.

He also pointed out that his work schedule is “tricky and full,” and he may miss some meetings. But he added, “… if the committee is willing to work around it then so am I, and we’ll see how well the situation holds together.”

In making their picks, the council snubbed former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, a Democrat with 22 years’ experience as an elected official in the  county.

When the nominees for the committee (their names were presented by their parties) appeared before the council last week to talk about their qualifications, Ladenburg said his long service gives him a unique perspective because he knows every nook and cranny in the county.

Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, who nominated the four men who were selected for the committee, told The News Tribune last week there were benefits to taking the vote on a slate of candidates as opposed to saying yea or nay to each candidate individually.

He didn’t want to embarrass Ladenburg, he said, by having his name put in nomination and then being voted down.

“If John doesn’t get his way, he stomps and yells and sues,” Muri said. “If I wanted to prosecute somebody and send them off to jail, that’s who I’d pick – John Ladenburg” to get the job done. (Ladenburg is a former Pierce County Prosecutor.) “But he’s not the type of guy you want to put on a collaborative committee,” Muri added.

Muri said he thought the council had done a good job of picking four men who are qualified to do the committee work and will do a good job.

“I’m very optimistic that the redistricting committee is going to work out well,” he said. “I don’t want a plan that’s gerrymandered.”

During public testimony before the council took its vote on the committee members last week, Ladenburg urged the panel “to rethink” what it was about to do.

In other forums, the political parties give one another “the courtesy” to make their own choices for redistricting committee members, he said.

“What you’re about to do here gives this a very political attitude, a very political attitude, and you know that….”

Starting the process with a very partisan vote “is going to look very bad, and is going to give this commission a very bad start,” Ladenburg told council members.

Talbert said during the council discussion prior to the vote that politics were at play “and Mr. Farrell and I are being overrun.”

Council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, and council members Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, and Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, voted in favor of the appointments. Stan Flemming, R-University Place, sided with Talbert and Farrell in voting no, saying he couldn’t support a candidate who’d asked his name be withdrawn from consideration.

Each major party – the Democrats and the Republicans – submitted five names to the council for consideration as members of the Districting Committee. Of the 10 nominees, eight made presentations to the council during its regular meeting last week.

The two who didn’t, both Democrats, were Ross and former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma. Both men said they’d need to decline service because of personal and work commitments.

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