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Redistricting commission faces lawsuit, controversy during final public comment period

logo for commission that depicts an outline of the state, a pen and "Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission" in front of a sunset on a lake
Courtesy
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Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission
13 people serve on the commission representing Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters.

The state’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is in the middle of its final public comment period before voting on political maps that will remain in place for the next decade.

That vote is scheduled for the end of the year.

The commission is also facing a lawsuit from several news organizations and the Michigan Press Association. They are asking the state Supreme Court to order the commission to release legal memos and a recording of a closed-door meeting from October.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Gongwer News Service's Ben Solis about the latest developments with the commission.

Interview Highlights

On where the commission is in the redistricting process

It is undergoing this 45-day comment period, as you mentioned, after that the commission will reconvene and then take a vote to adopt, which is what we've all been kind of waiting for. They're hoping to do that within the last week of December. And once we have that, then we can begin the process of having the Department of State do their reports, turn these maps into law and then get them done by March, which is when they're supposed to become law.

On why the commissioners voted to keep several memos and a recording of a closed-door session private

They were convinced by their attorneys that that would be a bad idea. One of the attorneys described it as: if we release these memos that were originally under attorney-client privilege on issues that went directly towards our mapping choices and decisions, and since we had them in a closed session, releasing that information [and] releasing the actual tape of the conversation from the closed session would be a "self-inflicted wound," like giving the playbook of your team to another team, which would be, you know, the litigant and judge who would be eventually deciding this.

On why the commission is facing pushback on that decision

This is the one instance where they have gone into closed session in the multitude of meetings that they've held. So, you know, in the long run, have they been transparent as far as they said that they were going to be? Some could argue that, yes. But with this closed session being held over something that I think a lot of the public didn't feel was worth the closed session, and also certainly, members of the press and other attorneys I've spoken to and seen react to this said the same that it should not have been held in a closed session.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

The state’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is in the middle of its final public comment period before voting on political maps that will remain in place for the next decade.

That vote is scheduled for the end of the year.

Ben Solis is a reporter with Gongwer News Service covering the redistricting commission. Thank you for joining me.

Ben Solis: Thank you for having me.

Saliby: Can you bring us up to speed about where we are in this redistricting process?

Solis: Certainly, well, the commission has put out proposed maps, several collaborative maps that they created together and then a few individually-created maps by some commissioners. It is undergoing this 45-day comment period, as you mentioned, after that the commission will reconvene and then take a vote to adopt, which is what we've all been kind of waiting for. They're hoping to do that within the last week of December.

And once we have that, then we can begin the process of having the Department of State do their reports, turn these maps into law and then get them done by March, which is when they're supposed to become law.

That's not a direct challenge to the maps, and they're expecting also direct challenges to the maps. But now we're starting the lawsuit phase.

But that is also barring any legal challenges which, last night, we heard that at least one legal challenge to their processes under [the] Open Meetings Act came through. That's not a direct challenge to the maps, and they're expecting also direct challenges to the maps. But now we're starting the lawsuit phase.

Saliby: There was quite a bit of news last week related to several memos and a recording of a closed door session in October that the commission voted to keep private.

What you just mentioned relates to that, can you tell me why commission members decided not to release that information despite pushback?

Solis: They were convinced by their attorneys that that would be a bad idea. One of the attorneys described it as: if we release these memos that were originally under attorney-client privilege on issues that went directly towards our mapping choices and decisions, and since we had them in a closed session, releasing that information [and] releasing the actual tape of the conversation from the closed session would be a "self-inflicted wound," like giving the playbook of your team to another team, which would be, you know, the litigant and judge who would be eventually deciding this.

So, they were convinced, on a pretty thin margin, to vote against releasing that information. Oddly enough, two of the commissioners who are actual attorneys, one retired attorney and a current attorney, were for the release of this information. They said that the issues that they discussed in closed session may have not been covered under OMA. They were not to discuss current or pending litigation. They were not to discuss personnel matters. And they didn't really see any real reason why they shouldn't be released.

However, the majority of the group went along with their attorneys' advice. And now we're seeing as of last night, several newspapers, Detroit News, Free Press and Bridge Michigan have sued them for the release of those memos.

Saliby: You know, the subjects of these conversations were presumably about the Voting Rights Act and fairness of these districts. What do you think that decision, you know, keeping these private will mean for the public perception of the commission?

Solis: It certainly didn't help. There was already a transparency issue with the public and, obviously, members of the press. We were concerned about the closed session. You know, people have pointed out that in the constitution, the charges to keep these meetings as open and in front of the public as possible.

This is the one instance where they have gone into closed session in the multitude of meetings that they've held. So, you know, in the long run, have they been transparent as far as they said that they were going to be? Some could argue that, yes. But with this closed session being held over something that I think a lot of the public didn't feel was worth the closed session, and also certainly, many members of the press and other attorneys I've spoken to and seen react to this said the same that it should not have been held in a closed session.

If they were having problems with their transparency to begin with, there were issues about getting maps to people once they were done earlier on, this certainly doesn't help.

Attorney General Dana Nessel came out with opinion saying as much that they should have had this an open session. So you know, if they were having problems with their transparency to begin with, there were issues about getting maps to people once they were done earlier on, this certainly doesn't help.

Saliby: This is an experiment. Does this kind of tarnish the reputation of doing this for the first time? You know, we can't look into the future 10 years from now, but I would assume this is going to come up. This is going to be a big part of the conversations when the commission reconvenes after the next census.

Solis: I can't imagine that they wouldn't go back to this and say, "Okay, we need to make some changes." It's hard to say though, you know, this is the first time that this commission [or the] type of this commission has been in effect.

They were obviously going to hit tons of hurdles and roadblocks. The census delays earlier were their biggest one. And now, this is majorly the second one if you don't count the backlash that they've received over their maps, maybe that was the second hurdle. This is probably the third one.

I think people, despite their complaints, enjoyed the fact that they could log on, watch these meetings if they had the time to do so, and see, you know, in real time, what they were doing.

But it's hard to say, I was asked, you know, by another person, does this kind of scare away, you know, other states from doing what we what we did. And again, [I'm] not sure, you know, for the first time ever, this was out in the public and for people to see how the sausage was made. That is significant. I think people, despite their complaints, enjoyed the fact that they could log on, watch these meetings if they had the time to do so, and see, you know, in real time, what they were doing.

So, it's really hard to say whether this is gonna tarnish the reputation or not, but, you know, this is definitely a roadblock for them.

Saliby: Ben Solis reports on the state's redistricting commission for Gongwer. Thank you for being here.

Solis: Thank you very much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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