More than a year after Chicago aldermen thought they had settled the contentious issue of redrawing the city's 50 ward boundaries, the new map they approved is facing a challenge in federal court.
The remap is unconstitutional because it was designed to protect most of the current aldermen, rather than ensure equal and full representation of individuals, minorities and neighborhoods, according to a lawsuit filed today by the League of Women Voters of Chicago and 14 individuals.
The suit also alleges that City Council committee chairmen have improperly implemented the new map before voters have had a chance to pick aldermen from within the new boundaries. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration “acquiesced” in that change, the lawsuit adds.
“The purpose of the new redistricting plan for the 2015 elections is to entrench the majority of City Council members in their current offices,” the suit states. “The purpose of the plan’s immediate implementation is to give the incumbents an unfair electoral edge by allowing an unlawful ‘early bird’ representation of the persons voting in the next City Council elections in 2015.”
The suit seeks to force aldermen to adhere to the old ward boundaries in decision-making until after the 2015 elections and to get a judge to name a person or special committee to draw up a new map “that will be fair, impartial and protect the voting rights of racial minorities.”
After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations --- but less than one hour after seeing the final map --- aldermen in January 2012 voted 41-8 to approve it — with no public hearing on the final plan and minimal debate that focused solely on legal technicalities instead of the impact on city residents.
The last-minute tweaks made behind closed doors were designed to ensure 41 votes — the minimum needed to avoid putting dueling maps before voters.
Aldermen drew up the map, as legislators in all districts across the nation do every decade following the census, to ensure fair and equal representation. But in this case, the remap came more than three years before the next council election, as happens once every two decades in Chicago. That sowed much confusion among both aldermen and the public as to whom represents who.
The map gave the Black Caucus the 18 majority-African American wards it sought and the Latino Caucus the 13 majority-Hispanic wards it wanted. That resulted in one less majority-African American ward, despite a drop in the black population equal to three wards full of people, and three more Hispanic wards, making up for decades of shortchanging city Latinos on the council.
But to satisfy most members of each caucus, and 41 aldermen overall, the number of people within each ward differed by as much as 8.7 percent, which the suit contends violates the one-man, one-vote principle established by the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, the council majority started using the new map three years early so aldermen could gain favor with new voters, the suit alleged.
To get those 41 votes, aldermen drew wards with “grotesque shapes and boundaries,” the suit states, citing the new 2nd Ward, the only ward to be moved to a completely different location.
Instead of being South and West of the Loop, the new 2nd Ward twists and snakes from the Gold Coast west across the Kennedy Expressway and Chicago River into Ukrainian Village. In one section between Division and North Avenues, it’s just one block wide.
The 36th Ward on the Northwest Side also was moved significantly. In 2015, 80 percent of its residents will be new to the ward, which is one of the newly drawn Hispanic-majority districts.
The suit alleges that the two substantially altered wards were designed to “oust” Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, and Ald. Nicholas Sposato, 36th, who “have shown political independence from the City Council majority.”
Sposato opposed the new map and its early implementation. “It’s the people who are really being cheated,” he said today. “They elected somebody, and then the council is not letting them be represented.”
He cited the example of a pawn shop permit near Narragansett and North Avenues that was recently approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. He opposed it, but 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham, who will represent the area if reelected in 2015, supported it.
“The people are the real losers in this whole thing when it comes to implementing the new map,” Sposato said. “People are being disenfranchised.”
The map also “fragments some of the best-known Chicago neighborhoods into multiple wards,” the suit states. Back of the Yards and Logan Square are each in five wards, and Chinatown is in two, it states.
The suit also takes issue with efforts by aldermen and the administration to start making decisions based on new ward boundaries.
Last October, the Latino and Black Caucus chairmen and the council’s most powerful chairmen wrote to all of their colleagues, making it clear they would jump-start the shift to new boundaries. “We are proposing that the City Council, from this time on, implement the boundaries as reflected in the map that it passed earlier this year,” the letter states.
That policy was later laid out in letters to the heads of major city departments, and it began affecting how $66 million in “menu money” was doled out by aldermen primarily to fix streets and install street lights, according to the suit.
For example, Ald. Marty Quinn, 13th, spent $17,640 to resurface a street on the 5900 block of South Rutherford Avenue, according to the suit. That’s in the 23rd Ward, but will be in the 13th after the 2015 election.
The early implementation also gave aldermen significant control over zoning, permits, special tax funding and the delivery of city services was done in areas where they might run for office in 2015 but did not run in 2011.
“By taking over representation in this way, the incumbent City Council members have the ability to direct aldermanic funds to win favor with the voters in the next election, make zoning decisions favorable for such voters and create ‘obligations’ and ‘favors owed’ that would enhance their chances of reelection in the new wards,” the suit states.
According to a February 2012 opinion from city Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton, and verbal opinions from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, aldermen continue to represent the wards from which they were elected, not those where they plan to run in 2015. But both opinions note that aldermen in reality try to jump-start their authority on what could be their new turf.
“Applicable law provides that the 2001 map, which was in effect for the 2011 aldermanic elections, should govern for the duration of those four-year terms,” Patton wrote. “This includes the continuing representation of constituents, as well as the filling of any vacancies before the 2015 election. However, nothing precludes aldermen from also rendering appropriate services to other Chicago residents, including those residing in the new versions of their respective wards.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times