SOUTH BEND – Democrats and Republicans in St. Joseph County both say they want fair and legally strong districts for the County Council and Council of Commissioners.
But the redistribution process could point to a political showdown after the commissioners, all Republicans, hired the law firm of former Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma to redesign their districts.
Some Democrats have raised concerns about the introduction of partisan politics into the redistribution, a process that could help determine the balance of power in the county’s legislative and executive powers for the next decade.
“I think the commissioners want to consolidate their majority, and they also want to win county council seats to dilute the council’s veto power,” said Tim Swager, county treasurer and county Democratic Party spokesperson. St. Joseph. “The end of the game is winning elections they don’t have to win.”
All of the project’s lawyers have GOP ties, and two have helped represent Donald Trump in his effort to overturn the 2020 election results in Wisconsin.
Following:Republican-drawn redistribution maps set to strengthen party strongholds in Indiana
But the head of the Council of Commissioners, the county’s executive branch, says he sought outside expertise to avoid the kind of political maneuver that he says gave Democrats an unfair advantage.
“I remember the districts were pretty much drawn by the Democratic Party, so that’s how it was done in the past,” said chairman of the commissioners Andy Kostielney. “To kind of get the politics out of it, we hired a company to make sure it’s done properly, legally, above reproach. “
The county is required to redraw its maps every 10 years, based on population changes reported in the US Census.
County officials are required to keep district populations as uniform as possible. But the way the maps are drawn can affect whether districts are competitive or lean towards one or the other of the parties, depending on the location of districts with a lot of Democratic or Republican voters.
This time around, a recent change in state law allows commissioners to create their own districts without council approval. This means that they also have more power over council maps – which must be drawn within the boundaries of commissioner districts.
At stake for the Democrats is a 6-3 majority on the board, which allows them to override any veto of the three commissioners. Last spring, that majority allowed council to extend an order imposing a county mask requirement, despite a veto from the commissioners.
Democrats who control the council say the hiring of Bosma’s company caught them off guard after reaching out to commissioners to work together on new district maps.
“It looks like we were snubbed when we extended, ‘Let’s try to work on this thing together,'” City Councilor Corey Noland said. “It’s interesting, they didn’t have much interest in responding to our olive branch. It’s a shame that it’s less collaborative between elected officials.
All the lawyers of the project have links to the GOP
Under the contract, the county will pay the company up to $ 35,000, not including reimbursable expenses.
Bosma, the president of the company, bills the county $ 435 an hour, according to the contract, while partner William Bock bills at an hourly rate of $ 425. Three other lawyers in the firm are working on the project at lower rates.
Under the contract, all behind-the-scenes work and firm communications with county officials will be confidential under solicitor-client privilege.
All of the lawyers working on the project have been involved in GOP causes or have held positions under Republican governors, mayors and members of Congress.
Two of the lawyers, Bock and Kevin Koons, represented Trump in his legal battle in Wisconsin for the election.
As Speaker of the Indiana House in 2011, Bosma presided over a redistribution process that sparked outrage from Democrats while helping the GOP retain a 7-2 advantage in the State House delegation. -United State and super majorities in both houses of the Indiana General Assembly.
Hiring a law firm “gives a break”
Noland said City Councilor Diana Hess contacted commissioners earlier this summer about starting the redistribution process, but there was no response until after commissioners hired Bosma’s company.
Once the commissioners decided to hire the firm, Kostielney said, he invited board members to use the same group and participate in an initial conversation with the lawyers.
At a meeting last Tuesday, a majority of board members expressed support for the separate hiring of their own outside lawyers.
“I was surprised, I must say, when I saw the Commissioners hire a law firm. This kind of work has taken off from the table, ”Hess said in an interview. “Just seeing the law firm of Brian Bosma, someone who was a hyper-supporter at State House, obviously gives a pause.”
Commissioners Kostielney, Deb Fleming and Derek Dieter voted on August 26 to approve the contract with Bosma’s company, Kroger Gardis Regas.
At the state level, Democrats have accused Republicans in Indiana of drawing gerrymandered districts to tilt more seats in their favor. For example, critics say, Republican lawmakers have rounded up as many Democratic voters as possible in a handful of districts, while spreading Republican voters across more competitive battlefields.
But locally, Republicans say similar tactics have helped the Democrats’ non-veto majority in county council.
Kostielney said the county council’s current maps regroup strong Republican majorities in three districts and leave more districts easier to win for Democrats.
For example, all of the conservative-leaning Harris Township is in Council District C, represented by Republican Richard Pfeil. That district voted for Donald Trump by a five-percentage-point margin last year, according to data compiled by Nick Roberts, a Democratic economics student at IUPUI who studies the redistribution.
Trump won District F, represented by Republican Mark Telloyan, by more than 30 points. This district includes large tracts of the south and southwest sides of the county. Trump won District I, which includes the Osceola region and is represented by Republican Mark Root, by more than 21 points.
“Republicans were a little less prone to hyperbole when districts were taken to the advantage of the Democratic Party,” Kostielney said.
Work will officially start soon
Kostielney said commissioners would soon take action to officially begin redistribution work, which according to the contract with the Bosma company will be done in secret until the proposed maps are made public later in the fall.
Some Council Democrats said it was too early to know whether the cards proposed by the commissioners would be politically motivated.
“You can’t stop the part that’s going to be political,” Council Chairman Rafael Morton said at Tuesday’s meeting, “but for me to sit here and say that Bosma’s business is or is n it’s not political, I’m not going to go there. “
But politics still crept into the board’s discussion on Tuesday about whether to hire your own business.
“If the commissioners are using Bosma, what’s wrong with Bosma? Pfeil asked. “As a Republican, I’m interested in how we choose this person.”
Hess replied, “As Republicans, so were Commissioners. That’s why they chose Brian Bosma. There are six Democrats on this council.
Morton noted that there aren’t many companies with expertise in redistribution.
“The expertise to do what Democrats want to do, is that what you say?” Pfeil joked.
“When I see what neighborhood they suggested to me,” Pfeil concluded, “you’ll hear more from me. “