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St. Louis petitioners to submit signatures seeking redistricting ballot issue

St. Louis petitioners to submit signatures seeking redistricting ballot issue

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Members of the general public watch the St. Louis Board of Aldermen meeting on Monday, April 15, 2019, from the overhead gallery in the City Hall chamber. (Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com)

ST. LOUIS — A group seeking to shift the task of city ward redistricting from aldermen to a new independent commission plans to turn in petitions on Monday to try to force a special election in February on their plan.

The group, Reform St. Louis, says it will submit signatures of about 38,000 registered voters to the city Election Board seeking a public vote on its proposed city charter amendment, which it wants to be called Proposition R.

The organization’s move comes just three days after a ward-by-ward analysis of 2020 census data was submitted to the Board of Aldermen by the city Planning and Urban Design Agency.

It showed that seven wards in heavily Black areas of north St. Louis each lost more than 20% of their population in the past decade, a far greater dip than the 5.6% decrease in the city’s overall population.

“The significant changes the city’s experiencing make it all the more important that the redistricting process be one that is transparent, citizen-driven and equitable,” said Benjamin Singer, a leader in the petition effort. “Proposition R for reform will provide that process.”

Under the current charter, the Board of Aldermen is required to redraw ward lines by the end of this year to reflect population changes in the census.

This year’s remap process is fraught with even more political intrigue than usual because the number of wards and ward aldermen must be cut to 14 from 28 under a charter amendment passed by voters in 2012. The first city election run under the new lines would be in 2023.

Supporters of turning over the task to an independent commission complain that aldermen have an inherent conflict of interest in drawing borders for wards they could be running in themselves.

In response, aldermen say they’re the elected officials closest to the people and most aware of the needs of the city’s dozens of neighborhoods and their respective residents.

Singer contends that a redistricting plan drawn next year by the commission set up by the proposition would supersede any map adopted by aldermen this year.

Aldermanic President Lewis Reed disputes that and asserts that once the board’s own plan becomes law, the process is over.

Gary Stoff, an election board official, said more than 30,000 signatures are needed to trigger a special election on the petition proposition. That’s equal to 15% of the number registered for the mayoral election last April.

Initiative petition campaigns typically turn in an excess number of names so they have a safety valve in case some are disqualified.

If the Election Board determines that the group has enough signatures, the proposal then goes before the Board of Aldermen for 60 days. After that, the election board could schedule an election on the issue. Approval by 60% of voters would be needed for passage.

Reform St. Louis is an offshoot of Show Me Integrity, the committee that played a key role in passing Proposition D, the city’s new nonpartisan “approval voting” system, last November.

Some of the same people are involved, including Singer, a former spokesman for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones when Jones was city treasurer. Jones, who supported D, has yet to take a position on the new measure.

The proposed redistricting commission would consist of nine people.

Four would be picked randomly from applicants by a Board of Aldermen-appointed oversight board made up of three retired judges and representatives of the comptroller’s office and the city Planning and Urban Design Agency. Those four commissioners would then select the other five.

Prohibited from serving would be anyone who ran for office or worked for a campaign or political party the previous two years. Also barred would be employees of city agencies and contractors and state and city lobbyists. Close relatives of disqualified individuals couldn’t be on the panel either.

The proposition also would make it more difficult for aldermen to make changes in the new approval voting system.

Under the new petition measure, any changes proposed by the Board of Aldermen in Proposition D, which changed city ordinances and didn’t amend the charter, would have to go before voters at a new election.

The petition plan also requires aldermen with a conflict of interest on pending legislation to refrain from voting instead of just disclosing the conflict.

Other provisions would bar former aldermen and aldermanic employees from lobbying the board for a year after they leave and would change the board’s name to the Board of Alderpersons.

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