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Photo: Jared Piper/PHLCouncil
Photo: Jared Piper/PHLCouncil

Criticism runs thick at only public hearing of Philly City Council’s new map

Residents hammered the secretive process of putting together the new map, “prison gerrymandering,” and other new boundaries.

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May 17th, 2022

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On Wednesday, Jan. 26, city officials gathered virtually for the only public hearing on Council President Darrell Clarke’s proposal to redraw Council’s district boundaries. Councilmembers heard from constituents about their thoughts on the new map.

Many residents criticized the secretive process that Clarke used to redraw the map, called for the city to tackle the issue of “prison gerrymandering” and raised concerns about the lines drawn in Fishtown, Brewerytown, and Harrowgate.

“They do it behind closed doors. They give people two weeks and one public comment. That doesn’t sound democratic to me,” said Howard Fisher, a canvasser with the political group One PA. 

Last month, Pat Christmas, Policy Program Manager at the Committee of Seventy, told WHYY News that once the redistricting process starts, it tends to be closed and inaccessible. 

“This has never been a robust and open and accessible public engagement process the way I think a lot of us would like us to see — with public hearings across the city, listening sessions, a preliminary map put out there for people,” he said. 

Despite nearly 100 organizations endorsing a Redistricting Roadmap of suggested steps to involve the public, the map was negotiated entirely behind closed doors and was rushed to the finish line. 

The Roadmap, put together by Amistad Law Project, Fishtown Neighbors Association, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, and more, included a submission box for public input, a call to abolish prison gerrymandering, and a schedule of public hearings before and after the release of a preliminary mapping plan.

The proposed map isn’t dramatically different from the current map, but numerous community splits haven’t been addressed while several new ones have been created. Communities that are split in this way may have a harder time being heard by elected officials. 

The issue of prison gerrymandering was brought up multiple times throughout the hearing, and residents are frustrated with its impacts. The proposed map from Clarke continues the practice of counting Philadelphians in city and state-prisons at the location of the prison instead of counting them at their home or last-known address.

Because the majority of people in prison are of color and from urban areas and are housed in facilities located in predominantly white, rural areas, the practice essentially robs their home communities of political power and transfers it to the areas where prisons are located.

“The 6th District is getting the benefit of nearly 5,000 people who are not constituents,” Christmas told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week, adding that when Council considers amending the map, it should eliminate prison gerrymandering from its plans. 

“There is still time to make this change. It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. 

Not all of the feedback from residents was criticism. Christine Kennedy, director of the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District, applauded a shift in Clarke’s proposal that places the entire North 2nd Street business corridor in Councilmember Mark Squilla’s district, replacing the current split between Clarke and Squilla’s district. 

“We see the new map as being beneficial to our portion of Philadelphia at least. We think it will help streamline some responses and engagement,” Kennedy testified. 

After almost two hours of mostly negative feedback on the plan, a Council committee recessed at about noon on Wednesday, Jan. 26 for one week without voting on or amending the proposal.

“We value your opinion. Believe it or not, we really do. “We do hear what you say, and we have tried our best,” Clarke said at the end of the session. 

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