When County Commissioner and Birmingham resident David Potts (R-20th District) said to “standby,” , he wasn’t joking.
Led by former Sen. Mike Bishop of Clark Hill, Potts, Troy resident Janice Daniels and Southfield resident Mary Kathryn Decuir filed a petition Monday to the Michigan Court of Appeals against the Oakland County Apportionment Commission, challenging the commission’s proposed plan for redrawing the county's 25 districts.
Reapportionment follows every U.S. Census, and the Apportionment Commission approved the newly redrawn county districts by a 3-2 vote May 20. As it stands now, Potts would have to run against fellow Republican incumbent Shelley Goodman Taub (R-16th District) to keep his seat.
According to the petition, the Apportionment Commission adopted the plan along party lines after deliberating for 34 minutes. The commission’s three Democrats—Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, county Democratic Party Chairman Frank Houston and county Treasurer Andy Meisner—voted for the plan. The two Republicans—county Republican Party Chairman Jim Thienel and county Clerk Bill Bullard—voted against.
The petition outlines several problems with the county’s proposed plan, including:
- The plan violates MCL 46.404, a statute which stipulates “all districts shall be as compact and of as nearly square shape as is practicable, depending on the geography of the county area involved.” Instead, the petition says the adopted plan contains an "avoidably high number of non-compact districts.”
- The plan “unnecessarily divides” communities of interest, including splitting the lower-income sections of Pontiac three ways and combining the more affluent Southfield Township with the lower income areas of Lathrup Village and Southfield.
- The map was “intentionally and systematically designed” to affect a political advantage for county Democrats.
- The map increases the number of minority-majority districts from three to four within the county, which dilutes the voting strength of the county’s African American population.
According to Charlie Spies, attorney for Clark Hill based out of Washington D.C., the Democrats' proposed plan is inexcusable primarily for the political maneuvering behind it.
"In my experience, this case is remarkable if for no other reasons then there's a memorandum ... on how to gerrymander," Spies said. "There is no reason to have long, extenuated districts except for political purposes."
Spies is referring to a memorandum in which Apportionment Commission Democrats write that while Michigan statutes prohibit districts from being drawn to political advantage, there is no statute against making those districts "competitive." According to Spies, "competitiveness" eventually becomes a code word for partisan.
Daniels, co-petitioner from Troy, said party politics was the driving force behind her decision to file alongside Potts and Decuir.
"I wasn't going to allow our county to be led by a commission that is focused on partisanship," she said. "It's not fair. It was written by Democrats for Democrats."
For Decuir, a Southfield resident, her concern was with the county's African American population. Under the new plan, the four minority-majority districts (located primarily near Southfield and Pontiac) would have a 51 percent African American majority. A slight population shift, Spies said, would eliminate the minority-majority district and dilute the African vote.
"I'm concerned with the ability of African American to select a representative for our community," Decuir said.
The petition requests that the approved plan be rendered void and the committee should be instructed to adopt a new plan.
Potential changes ahead
If the new plan is upheld, Birmingham could find itself with a change in representation next year.
Under the new boundaries, Birmingham moves from the 20th District into the redrawn 16th District, joining Bloomfield Township and parts of West Bloomfield.
This places Potts and Taub in the same district, pitting them against each other should either of them choose to run in the 2012 election.
Potts currently represents Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, parts of Bloomfield Township and parts of Troy. Taub represents West Bloomfield Township, Orchard Lake Village and parts of Bloomfield Township.
Potts and Taub’s terms end Dec. 31, 2012. As a Birmingham resident, Potts would have to run in the 16th District, where he lives, in order to seek re-election.
In a statement Tuesday, Potts said the decision was clearly partisan and it was unfortunate two incumbents were placed in the same district.
In addition, Potts, who is currently in this third term, said he's never seen districts look so abstract. Several districts look like horseshoes, he said. "The Waterford district looks like an elephant."
Democrats claim politics didn't play a role
While Spies said the new districts clearly give Democrats—and by extension, Democratic areas such as Pontiac, Southfield and the Woodward corridor communities, Meisner said the goal was to make the districts as nonpartisan as possible.
“We were tasked with creating an even apportionment, respecting minority voters and following city and township boundaries as much as possible, and we did a pretty good job of that,” Meisner said.
Plus, Meisner argues minorities have more clout under the new boundaries and are not dilluted.
“(The map) reflects Oakland County’s growing diversity, not just in terms of African-Americans but in terms of our Asian-American population and the growing number of people coming here from other places, such as India,” Meisner said.
The districts may not even matter when it comes to partisan clout, county Clerk Bill Bullard said. Republicans currently hold a 15-10 advantage on the County Commission, and that advantage could continue even with the new districts.
“It depends upon what kind of election 2012 will be,” Bullard said, noting GOP success in the county in local and national elections in 2010.
As for placing Potts and Taub in the same district, Meisner said worrying about incumbents and who stays and goes isn't part of the process of redistricting and wasn't a factor for the five-member Apportionment Committee.
“Protecting incumbents is something that wasn’t part of our job,” Meisner said.
The next step, Spies said, will be for the appeals court to form the panel that will hear the petition. However, he said he doesn't expect anything to happen until after the first of July, noting the appeals court could wait until July 6—the deadline for any challenges—in order to consolidate similar challenges from around the state.