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McLean County advisory group begins redistricting work

Group standing in meeting room
Eric Stock
Retired judge John Freese speaks to members of the 'Red, White & Blue' advisory committee following an orientation meeting on Wednesday.
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The 24 community members tasked with drawing new McLean County Board maps approved ground rules Wednesday and learned how the redistricting process will work in their first in a series of meetings over the next month to shape the county’s political boundaries for the next decade.

The volunteer members of the county’s so-called ‘Red, White & Blue’ advisory committee were split into three groups. Each of the teams involved will hold at least three meetings in October to draft three proposed maps for the public to review and recommend changes.

Judges seated at redistricting meeting
Eric Stock
Retired judges (left to right) John Freeze, Beth Robb and Kevin Fitzgerald listen during an orientation meeting of the McLean County 'Red, White and Blue' advisory group.

“This is by far the most representative community group that has ever been brought together to consider these kinds of issues in McLean County, at least based on my experience,” said retired judge John Freese, who will serve as a team leader, along with fellow retired judges Kevin Fitzgerald and Beth Robb.

Freese noted he served on the McLean County Board in 1980, when the board was trimmed from 27 members to 20 and it increased the number of districts.

In May, county board chair John McIntyre named the judges and 21 other community members to serve on three advisory groups to oversee the redistricting process. He sought input from Republican vice chair Jim Soeldner and Democrat Elizabeth Johnston in selecting the members.

McIntyre presented the advisory committee to the county board after contentious debate between Republicans and Democrats and accusations of backroom dealing.

Both parties see the once-a-decade map making process as key to legislative control. Democrats have gained seats in each of the last three elections to trim the majority Republicans have held for decades.

McLean County’s IT staff outlined the online mapping software from Esri that the county will use to craft the district boundaries based on 2020 census data.

McLean County First Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Spanos told the committee the county board districts should be contiguous, should not divide townships and municipalities whenever possible and should be nearly equal in population.

“The underlying principle when you are drawing maps, the Supreme Court of the United States and all the courts in Illinois agree, is one person, one vote,” Spanos told the committee.

Spanos noted each district cannot deviate more than 10% from the target population in each district. In 2010, the largest and smallest districts deviated 8.5% from the target.

Committee member Phani Aytam, who chairs the United Way of McLean County Board, asked if the committee will have access to precinct-level data on race or socioeconomic data.

County IT said that data wasn’t included in the software and Spanos advised the committee not to seek that demographic data when crafting the maps.

“On the one hand, you want to make sure you have a diverse group of people elected to office, but on the other hand you don’t want to set up your precincts for the sole purpose of electing a minority,” Spanos said.

“I’m trying to understand, representation matters, but I understand your concern there,” Aytam replied.

County interim administrator Cassy Taylor noted McLean County added 1,382 residents since the last census, a near 1% increase that bumped the county’s population to 170,954. The county experienced most of that growth in Bloomington-Normal, while the rest of the county’s population dropped.

Previously, the county board decided to keep the current format of two county board members serving in each of 10 districts. Democrats backed a plan to create 20 districts with one member each. Several Republicans had sought to reduce the number of districts.

McIntyre previously instructed county board members not to interfere with the advisory committee’s work to remove the potential for political influence.

Taylor said the county plans to have the maps proposals posted online by Oct. 26. The county has scheduled a public hearing on the maps at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 in room 400 of the Government Center. Taylor said the committees can then redraw proposals based on feedback. The final recommendations will go to the county board for a vote at its Nov. 16 meeting.

Advisory board member Greg Shaw, a politics and government professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, asked if the county board was limited to selecting one of the maps crafted by the advisory committee.

Taylor replied that is the county board’s intent, but indicated the board has not tied itself to those recommendations.

“We are in discussions about possible resolutions to move forward to ensure that, but at this time that has not been decided by the board,” Taylor said.

The county’s redistricting effort was delayed months because the coronavirus pandemic slowed census data. The state of Illinois then gave local governments more time to draw their political maps.

Taylor said the advisory members were divided in teams to provide the best balance for each team based on place of residence, background and political affiliation.

The Red team includes Phani Ayam, Uma Balakrishman, Adelita Cruz, Ruth Novosad, Beth Robb, Greg Shaw, Julie Smith and Gary Tipsord.

The White team consists of Guadalupe Alcala, Diane Christy, Neil Finlen, Kevin Fitzgerald, Scott Laughlin, Marcos Mendez, John Weiland and Janessa Williams.

The Blue team includes Karla Bailey-Smith Marie Denzer-Farley, Brian Dirks, John Freese, Mike O’Grady, Tony Penn, Phyllis Versteegh and Fred Walk.

The advisory panels meetings are scheduled for:

  • Monday, Oct. 4 6:30 p.m. (Red)
  • Wednesday, Oct. 6, 7:30 a.m. (Blue)
  • Thursday, Oct. 7, 7 p.m. (White)
  • Monday, Oct. 11, 6 p.m. (White)
  • Tuesday, Oct. 12 5 p.m. (Red)
  • Wednesday Oct. 13 6 p.m. (White)
  • Friday, Oct. 15th 7:30 a.m. (Blue)
  • Tuesday, Oct. 19, 6 p.m. (Red)
  • Friday, Oct. 22, 7:30 a.m. (Blue)

The meetings are open to the public, but no public comment will be permitted until the Nov. 1 hearing, according to Taylor.

Updated: October 1, 2021 at 1:41 PM CDT
The Oct. 7 meeting has been moved from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.