Until the City of Great Bend decides how it wants to handle the redrawing of its ward and precinct boundaries, there is no point for the Barton County Commission to consider doing anything with its five districts. That was the assessment of County Clerk Bev Schmeidler when she addressed the commission during its study session Wednesday morning.
“It doesn’t make sense for us to redistrict at this time,” she said. “Because then we would have to turn around do it again after they complete what they’re going to do.”
By state statute, counties have to redistrict every three years, Schmeidler said. This is an off year, so the county really doesn’t have to do anything now.
“We can do nothing about how the city divides their precinct and wards, that’s all of them,” she said. Should the county, since it has the Census data, opt to redistrict, it may have turn around and redo it again.
“Cory Uban with the City Council had contacted me about redistricting the city and changing the ward lines,” Schmeidler said. “He asked about the possibility of eliminating precincts, which would throw a wrench in the commission districts.”
There are five commission districts and, of these, District 2 falls entirely within the city limits and Districts 3 and five take in portions of the city. In order to get the correct population in each district, the county uses the precinct lines to split up the city with districts straddling more than one of the four wards.
“I explained that to him the precincts do play a factor in redistricting for commission districts,” she said. The districts have to be contiguous, not made up of scattered isolated areas.
Other potential problems
“It could potentially throw us way off,” she said. The city’s wards, like the county’s districts, are divided by population, not by registered voters, with the goal to have the number of residents as equal as possible.
Urban had gotten the final U.S. Census information from County Cartographer Bj Wooding. “He is just starting to work the process and talk to people, so I just want you to be aware of it that,” Schmeidler said.
In Great Bend’s case, “the population has changed enough within each of those wards that they’re very skewed,” she said. Urban had a concept where he got it down to a difference of about 20.
The city is divided into four wards with each covering one-fourth of the residents. So, the average if one were to divide that by four would be 3,683.
As it stands now, Ward 1 is 235 people over that number, Ward 2 is 273 people over, Ward 3 is 51 below and Ward 4 is 456 below.
“The thing is that it may not affect us at all, depending on how it all works,” District 5 Commissioner Jennifer Schartz said. But, “if they eliminate precincts it will.”
“I did explain that to him and I think he’s kind of backtracking on eliminating precincts now,” Schmeidler said. “He thought there was just no need for them anymore. So I think he understood that now.”
“If they just eliminated precincts, could we not make some designation within each word instead?” Schartz asked.
“I don’t know, I would have to research that,” Schmdeidler said.
There is another wrinkle with cutting precincts. The county’s Republican and Democratic party committees are made up of members from the precincts, and these committees are called into service for such things as selecting someone to fill a vacated elected office between elections, Schmeidler said.
“Those precinct people make those decisions for the party,” she said. Fewer precincts would mean fewer committee members.
District 4 Commissioner Jim Daily said it is becoming more difficult to get candidates for precinct posts. “Fewer numbers might be a benefit.”
Another problem would be that election polling sites are based on precincts as well, Schmeidler said.
Commissioners offer alternatives
“A lot of cities run their city commissions or councils as at-large members,” Daily said. “They don’t have precincts and districts and wards.”
If this were the case, then nothing would change for the County Commission, he said. He cited his experience working in Newton, which operates this way.
“That’s not what he’s talking about doing,” Schmeidler said. “He’s talking about definitely changing ward lines” and possibly looking at eliminating precincts within those wards. He has the populations figured out for the wards, but not for the precincts.
District 1 Commissioner Kirby Krier didn’t like the at-large concept. He noted that the Barton Community College trustees are elected this way and it is possible to have some regions of the county underrepresented.
“That’s taxation without representation,” he said.
“There’s another solution,” commission Chairman Shawn Hutchinson, District 3, said. There are four wards in Great Bend and there are two council members per ward for a total of eight plus one mayor for a total of nine.
“What they could do, and I’ve told everyone that would listen, is eliminate one councilman per ward and make that a four-councilman city council and then pay these folks enough to cover at least our health insurance and that could give some an incentive to run.”
The problem, as he sees it, is the city continually has unfilled council seats. “You have people that are getting elected with three or four write-in votes. So people aren’t running for office. That’s actually the problem,” not redistricting.
This scenario would be comparable to the commission, which has five members, with one serving as the chairman. “I’ll tell you, five is a great number. We don’t always agree but we can always come to a decision with five,” Hutchinson said.
“We don’t need to take any action by our side until they finally get it together – what they are going to do,” Daily said. “But I will reiterate what I said. I believe fewer numbers on the city council is probably a good idea. And having worked with an at-large system, it works fine once you get all the bugs worked out.”