London Grove latest township to say 'No' to gerrymandering
09/12/2017 01:08PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
London Grove Township has become the latest municipality in Chester County to sign on in its rejection of gerrymandering in Pennsylvania voting districts, but not without argument.
By a 3-2 vote at its Sept. 6 meeting, the township's Board of Supervisors agreed to adopt a resolution that adds the township to growing list of Pennsylvania cities, towns, boroughs, and counties who have already adopted similar resolutions in support of fair redistricting practices, including 14 municipalities in Chester County. London Grove Township joins New Garden, West Bradford Township and the Oxford Borough as the latest municipalities added to the list.
Those voting in favor of the petition were supervisors Dave Connors, Mike Pickel and Thomas Szakas. Those not voting in favor of the petition were board chairman Richard Scott-Harper and supervisor Steve Zurl.
Last Wednesday's presentation, led by township residents Russ Losco and Eric Schott, was the latest effort in a largely grass roots citizens brigade across Chester County that has been led by Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan, citizen-led, statewide coalition working to create a process for redistricting that is transparent, impartial, and fair. Over the last several months, residents have become a regular site at meetings, encouraging their elected officials to reject the policies now in place throughout Pennsylvania that shape congressional districts to a particular party.
The game plan of Fair Districts PA is to get as many municipalities as possible throughout the state to support their efforts in conjunction with two bills in Harrisburg that propose to create an independent citizens commission in charge of both legislative and congressional redistricting. PA Senate Bill 22 is a bipartisan proposal introduced by Senators Lisa Boscola, a Democrat, and Mario Scavello, a Republican; and PA House Bill 722 is a bipartisan proposal introduced by Representative Eric Roe, a Republican, and Representative Steve Samuelson, a Democrat.
Passage of these two bills -- both now in committee -- will put an end to the current laws on the state books, which puts state legislators in charge of redrawing their voting districts, which happens every 10 years to reflect population changes. Redistricting is scheduled to be done again after the 2020 census.
It promises to be a long road to passage for both bills, as they will need to pass the House and Senate in 2018 and 2020, and then be passed through a citizen's referendum, in order for them to enacted.
Using comparison maps of the 7th Congressional District as a guide, Losco noted the massive shape change the district has undergone over the last 60 years, changing from a fairly contiguous voting district to an inkblot test that some have referred to as "Goofy kicking Donald Duck," that snakes its way through portions of Delaware, Berks, Lancaster, Montgomery and Chester counties.
"The result of gerrymandering here at home is that it has robbed our citizens of the right to cast meaningful votes," said Losco, who forwarded a petition signed by 190 township residents to the board. "The citizens are no longer represented by their congressmen or representatives. Many citizens have stopped voting, simply because they feel that their vote is meaningless.
"The result in Washington, D.C. and Harrisburg is gridlock," Losco added. "Our elected officials there really have no incentive to compromise, so we've lost the moderate portion of our government."
The current situation strongly favors the Republicans, but this is not a Republican or Democratic matter, Losco said.
"This is not an attempt at a power grab by one side or the other trying to do away with gerrymandering," he said. "In fact, under the current rules for redistricting, the state is in a position that if these rules aren't changed, the Democrats will have the upper hand and will be able to draw these crazy, bizarre districts to benefit them. This is really about returning Pennsylvania and the nation to a fair and representative government. Gerrymandering does violence to the Constitution, so it is the sworn duty of every elected official to do whatever they can to eliminate it."
Although the overwhelming opinion of the board favored a more fair and balanced method of drawing districts, the conversation point focused on whether it is in the jurisdiction of township supervisors to take a position on a political issue.
"I never envisioned that as part of my role as a supervisor that I would try to influence state legislatures on how people vote, as a board," said Scott-Harper, who later called gerrymandering a "schoolyard political ploy." "As an individual, I do not disagree with anything you're saying. I think it's despicable. I just don't think that's the role of a board of supervisors to make statements on those issues."
Rather than latching the board onto the petition, Scott-Harper said that there was power in numbers, and encouraged London Grove Township residents to contact their state representatives.
"Instead of saying, 'I got a letter from five [supervisors],' [legislators] can say, 'I got phone calls from 5,000 residents from London Grove Township. That to me seems to be a much heavier hammer than a board of supervisors drafting a resolution.
"It is a political issue that should be resolved through state government and state government listening to its residents," he later added. "I'm an elected official with a specific purpose to protect our health, welfare and safety, and I don't believe that this [is about] health, welfare and safety. I believe this is politics."
Some in the audience took issue with Scott-Harper.
"We're talking about voting, but I'm talking about representation," said resident Wanda Belli. "If I'm on the borderline, my neighbors are represented by another person, so there is no community representation in that last drawing [of the 7th District]. If we say it's not political but wait for the people to be elected in this system to make a change, it's not likely to happen."
Pickel's support of the resolution, he said, was influenced by a recent 25-minute phone call he had with Rep. John Lawrence.
"I asked [Lawrence], 'Help me understand what we should do for our residents, if we've got people signing petitions and people coming to us,'" Pickel said. "'Should we be taking a stand on larger issues in London Grove Township?' Rep. Lawrence said, and I agree with him 100 percent, that like we've done in the past when residents have brought issues to us, it is always good to go on the public record on where we stand as a board of supervisors to support our residents."
"We need some kind of groundswell of support in this rejection," said Schott after the vote. "My hope is that if we get enough resolutions passed and make enough phone calls and write enough editorials, it may have impact on the final decision."
"Now this experience goes to other people in other municipalities, to see how they say the same thing," Losco said. "[This resolution] doesn't have the weight of the law. It doesn't have the authority to that, but [as was mentioned during the meeting], John Lawrence answers their calls. So something like this, coming from a board of supervisors, means so much more.
"Those three signatures on this resolution mean more than 300 phone calls to John Lawrence," Losco added. "This [decision] carries more weight."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.