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Gathering Support to Fix Philly's Political Borders

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, August 9 2011

A citizen-led effort to take the reins in redrawing Philadelphia's political lines has already attracted a surprising amount of support, and one city official's promise to listen.

In response to widespread pressure to pass a new map of city council districts that reflect population changes uncovered in the 2010 U.S. Census, the Philadelphia City Council has planned a public hearing on the redistricting process — but a leading city government watchdog tells me that many are not convinced a single hearing will ensure that public voices are heard. Philly-based mapping software firm Azavea — which has previously conducted a study that found Philadelphia's districts among the worst in the country when judged by traditional criteria — decided to host an open competition to draw the best map rather than wait for city officials to come up with one. The firm deployed the redistricting software they developed with the Public Mapping Project, District Builder, and used it to launch a contest to see what Philadelphia citizens could do. In partnership with media organizations like the public radio station WHYY, linked above, Azavea hosted a competition kickoff and software demo on Monday. WHYY reports that over 100 folks showed up, including City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who promised to take the best maps to the council; the contest, accessible online, has already attracted over a dozen entries.

This year, good-government advocates across the country have mounted independent efforts to get greater citizen input on redistricting or seize the process from state and local legislatures, which often have the ability to slice up their own political turf in back-door meetings. There are online resources that explain the process and criteria for good districts, like the ones Azavea used in their previous study.

If the City Council doesn't approve a new map by Sept. 9, members' paychecks will be withheld until they do. Once they pass it, though, they can collect back pay — so the deadline is more of a guideline, really.