York County commissioners join call for citizens redistricting commission

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
In this file photo, York County commissioners, from left, Chris Reilly, Susan Byrnes and Doug Hoke hold their weekly meeting at William Penn Senior High School in York City, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The York County Commissioners have joined bipartisan calls for an independent citizens' redistricting commission but are unsure if the Legislature can set aside its identity politics and fix the way legislative maps are drawn in Pennsylvania.

Since last February, bills have been proposed in the House and Senate to amend the state Constitution to create an 11-member independent redistricting commission. The commission would be composed of four citizens registered to the state's majority party, four registered to the minority party and three registered to neither.

It would "conduct an open and transparent process enabling full public consideration of and comment on the drawing of district lines," the bills read. Although proposed by Democrats, the bills have co-sponsors from both parties.

Last month, the York County Commissioners approved a resolution asking the state Legislature to create an independent, citizen-run redistricting commission.

With the vote, the board added its voice to more than 250 other Pennsylvania municipalities calling for redistricting reform, according to Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit volunteer organization that aims to end partisan gerrymandering,

More than a month later, however, Commissioner Chris Reilly said he is unsure whether such suggestions will carry weight with legislators.

York County Commissioner Chris Reilly

"(Redistricting) is a big political issue; a bit of political football," the Republican said. "The issue itself has been heavily politicized, and that seems to be very common."

Court decision: Although legislation to create an independent commission was introduced last year, a state Supreme Court decision earlier this year highlighted the problem of gerrymandering and shined a spotlight on the bills.

Gerrymandering occurs when one political party manipulates the boundaries of legislative districts in an attempt to ensure future electoral success. Legislative district maps are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census.

In late January, the high court sided with plaintiffs who claimed Pennsylvania's congressional map was unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republican candidates. It ordered Gov. Tom Wolf and state lawmakers to create a new map in time for the May 15 primary, and when they missed the deadline, the justices imposed their own map.

A constitutional amendment is required to transfer redistricting authority from the state Legislature to an independent commission. That means lawmakers must pass an identical bill in two consecutive legislative sessions and then put it on the ballot for a public referendum.

The window to have a citizens redistricting commission in place to draw maps after the 2020 census is getting close.

A version of the bills would have to be approved in the current session and again in 2018-19. Voters would then have to sign off on the potential amendment in referendum in 2020.

The Senate bill sits untouched in the chamber's state government committee, but similar legislation in the House State Government Committee has been amended, prompting an outcry from Democrats.

The first House bill was sent to the state government committee, chaired by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, where it was gutted of any language that would create such a citizens' commission.

Instead, the committee voted on party lines to amend the legislation to create a six-person commission, which would include one from each chambers' caucuses and two from votes by the chambers in unison.

A similar bill introduced by a different Democrat received the same treatment in Metcalfe's committee.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County.

The amended versions would create a commission that appears to deviate slightly from the current six-member commission process, where caucuses from each chamber choose a member, and those members choose a final, fifth member. 

After his committee amended the first bill, Metcalfe wrote in a Facebook post that he blocks "all substantive Democrat legislation sent to my committee."

Fair Districts PA has long been a proponent of creating an independent redistricting commission in Pennsylvania, and its chairwoman isn't surprised by Metcalfe's comments.

"Rep. Metcalfe has made it very clear publicly he doesn't support Democratic bills," Carol Kuniholm said. "This is not good for their brand, as they may end up looking like obstructionists and also that the speaker is unable to discipline his committee chair. We would hope that at some point they would decide they need to do something different."

Two York County lawmakers on the House State Government Committee — Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, and Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township — supported the amendments.

Phillips-Hill defended her vote, saying her constituents don't care about an independent redistricting commission.

“Voters are upset with the map that the Supreme Court drew, and we're looking at a divided York County now," she said. “They care about infrastructure, property taxes and efficient government. It’s my job to advance the agenda of the people that sent me to Harrisburg."

Grove did not return multiple phone messages seeking comment.

More:House GOP alters a second proposal for independent redistricting commission

More:State reps throw support behind redistricting reform

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody wrote a letter to House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, requesting that Democratic bills would be sent to a different committee where they would see fair treatment.

"Now that (Rep. Metcalfe) freely admits what was always plain to see, I believe you, as Speaker of the House, should act to restore fairness for all House members, Democrats and Republicans alike," the Allegheny County Democrat wrote. "Mr. Metcalfe's perversion of the legislative process must not be allowed to continue, and you, Mr. Speaker, have the ability to fix it."

Mike Turzai, GOP candidate for governor. (Submitted)

However, Phillips-Hill isn't concerned with Dermody's attempted end-run around the state government committee.

"When you’re the minority, you have to be creative," she said.

Dermody spokesman Bill Patton said his boss hasn't received a response from Turzai, but he's "confident that the speaker will give it serious consideration."

"We are hoping to get some feedback when the House is in session next week," he said.

Turzai did not return phone and email messages seeking comment. 

Back in York County: Reilly is hopeful lawmakers can put aside political differences to overcome the stalemate, but he "doesn't know whether or not that will happen."

His colleagues on the board of commissioners agree.

Commissioner Susan Byrnes, also a Republican, said she "hopes that they will cooperate" but declined to comment on the likelihood of that happening.

Doug Hoke, the only Democratic commissioner, echoed the others' uncertainty but said it should be easier for legislators to work across the aisle.

"I'm optimistic, but I wouldn't say I'm confident," he said. "Redistricting is something that we've talked about every 10 years when the census is delivered to the state. There should be an easy way for us to have districts put together to be fair and equal."