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Three watchdog groups said Wednesday that Utah lawmakers are not listening to the public about redistricting, and instead seek to protect political parties and incumbents. They called Wednesday for them to start listening and avoid political gerrymandering.
"I don't think it matters what the public says," Maryann Martindale, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah said at a Capitol news conference. "They keep putting out maps that are in contradiction to what the people say they want."
The Legislature's Redistricting Committee this week finished a series of 17 field hearings held statewide over nine weeks. Members have said they are listening, and tweaked several proposed maps based on citizen comments.
But the Alliance for a Better Utah, Fair Boundaries and RepresentMeUtah! said Wednesday that lawmakers have not responded well enough, and their maps still protect incumbents more than they keep communities of interest together. They said keeping communities whole is what most commenters in public hearings have said is their top concern.
Kelli Lundgren with RepresentMeUtah! said the real test about whether lawmakers are actually listening will be how they divide Salt Lake County in new congressional maps. She said watchdog groups and a big majority of commenters at public hearings feel it is important to keep it together as much as possible and divide into no more than two pieces.
Republican leaders, however, had proposed slicing it into four pieces, and pairing each with a large rural area. They say such a "pizza slice" plan would ensure each member of Congress focuses on rural and urban issues. Democrats say it is an attempt to dilute their votes in their one stronghold in the state, and make it more likely that the GOP will win all congressional races.
Senate President Michael Waddoups had been a key advocate of the "pizza slice" plan, but he backed away from it a bit at the last redistricting field hearing this week. He now proposes dividing Salt Lake County into three slices, instead of four. He would combine Salt Lake City with most of eastern and southern Utah, and conservative rural residents would outnumber Democratic Salt Lakers.
Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, criticized it. He said Salt Lakers have little in common with those rural residents, and said it still appears to be an attempt to draw maps to allow Republicans to win all four new U.S. House districts.
"If Salt Lake County is divided into four or even three U.S. congressional districts, the predominantly Republican Redistricting Committee will have diluted undesired votes. This is wrong, and this is disenfranchisement," Lundgren said.
Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, the Senate chairman of the Redistricting Committee, said the committee will take a few weeks to mull what it heard in hearings. He said it will hold public meetings next month and try to hash out final plans to send to the full Legislature.
"Actions speak louder than words," said Mark Sage with Fair Boundaries, a group that tried unsuccessfully to put on the ballot an initiative to give redistricting duties to an independent commission. "We will be waiting and watching to see if our Legislature again perpetrates another sham against the Utah voters," which he said it did 10 years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to oust Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, by changing what had been an all-Salt Lake County district to include vast rural areas.
"We're concerned that the public input process has been nothing more than a dog-and-pony show," Martindale said.
Utahns and officials have submitted more than 160 maps to the Redistricting Committee. They are available on the committee's website, Redistrict-Utah.com. People may also draw their own maps and submit them there.