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Chester County Press

East Marlborough board votes to support gerrymandering reversal

06/06/2017 10:19AM ● By J. Chambless

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District has been called “one of the ten most gerrymandered districts in the country” by The Washington Post, and it is the focus of a state House Bill that seeks to end the practice of drawing up convoluted districts for political advantage.

On June 5, an overflow crowd at the East Marlborough Board of Supervisors meeting showed strong public support for the bill.

The District 7 voting district is a prime example of gerrymandering, according to a local group.

 House Bill 722 in the Pennsylvania State Legislature seeks a change in the method for establishing voting districts in the state, and advocates an end to gerrymandering. East Marlborough Township is part of the Seventh District, an unwieldy tract that includes parts of the Philadelphia suburbs, most of Delaware County, portions of Montgomery County, Chester County, Berks County, and Lancaster County. The district ranges from blue-collar and working-class households in the southeastern portions of Delaware County to rural Berks and Lancaster counties to the affluent households of Chester County.

Ron Whitaker, who leads a bipartisan advocacy group called Fair Districts PA, was at the Board of Supervisors meeting with a crowd of supporters. He introduced several township residents, including Basil Moss, who said, “Rep. Eric Roe was a primary Republican co-sponsor of the bill. I have heard him discuss the issue, and it seems common sense – why wouldn't you want to do this?

“Recently, I drove up to Reading to visit an old friend up there,” Moss said. “I lived in the Reading area back in the 1970s, but I felt like I was going to the other end of the world when I was up there. It struck me when I was up there, 'This is still the 16th Congressional District.'

“Now, Rep. Lloyd Smucker is up there as one of the congressional representatives. But there are three other congressional representatives serving that county. They all happen to be Republican, in a county that's majority Democratic,” Moss said. “Mr. Smucker is representing a large, low-income, urban area in Reading. It has one of the poorest school districts in the United States. He also represents the entire East Marlborough Township, which has high-income suburban residents and one of the top-ranked school districts in the state. His prime constituency is there in Lancaster County.

“I think we need to do the guy a favor,” he said as the crowd laughed. “I don't think there's any way he can look at himself in the mirror every day and say he's going to do justice to that diversity in geography, that diversity in cultural demographics. A lot of townships have already joined this effort, and I hope you can agree to support it as well,” he said.

Whitaker said, “I think we can agree that gerrymandering is a bad thing. Three months ago, a study was published that put Pennsylvania in the top three states for gerrymandering. Last month, there was an article published in Fortune magazine that bumped us up to No. 1. Gerrymandering is intended to create safe districts and safe seats for politicians.”

Such sprawling districts create inertia, Whitaker said. “Voters come to realize that their votes don't count, so they stop voting. People who might run against those politicians have to consider that it's going to be very expensive, and they'll probably lose, so they step aside. What we get is a populace that doesn't vote, politicians that don't care, and candidates that can't afford to run. That's not Democracy.”

House Bill 722, and a similar bill in the State Senate, have widespread bipartisan support, according to Whitaker and others. “Both are bipartisan. Both recommend the creation of an independent counsel to do the redistricting,” Whitaker said. “A lot of townships have signed on to do away with gerrymandering. Through the public meetings and town halls we've had, we have met hundreds of East Marlborough citizens and voters. We have petitions signed by 431 of them, and 197 through an online poll.”

Supervisor Eddie Caudill said, “After hearing all of you speaking about it, I've changed my mind and I'm in favor of signing this.”

Supervisor Robert Weer agreed, saying, “I agree that we were reluctant to open a can of worms about this, but hearing what these people say, I am ready to sign this petition.”

Board chairman Richard Hannum said, “You guys have done a great job in the community and in providing a voice. I would say that both sides of the fence – whether you're right or left – have been guilty of this. The challenge for the board is what does this mean when other grassroots organizations come to us? They also have what they think are powerful stories for their issues. What we don't want to do is open up the door to groups that may be conflicting with what the board wants to do.

“I had a great discussion with Rep. Roe in understanding his passion behind the bill,” Hannum continued. “I also had a nice conversation with Mr. Whitaker about what you are doing with Fair Districts PA. You guys have presented a very passionate case, and that goes along with us as a board.”

Supervisor John Sarro added, “I don't get too involved in national politics – I prefer to work on local issues. But both parties have taken advantage of gerrymandering, and I agree we should support this.”

The supervisors voted to endorse the resolution as the crowd applauded and cheered.

In other business, the board heard a summary of recommendations from township engineer Jim Hatfield regarding requirements for reducing stream sediment. As part of regional MS4 restrictions, the township is obligated to reduce the volume of runoff entering local streams.

The township has four watershed areas, Hatfield said. Two drain to the Brandywine, and two drain to the Red Clay Creek. Fortunately, the township was an early adopter of more stringent stormwater ordinances from 1984 to 1995, and many developments in the township already have systems in place. Hatfield recommends checking the systems in several developments to make sure they are working properly, and counting those systems into the mandated 10 percent reduction in stream pollutants from the township.

The five-year process of assessing and improving stormwater runoff systems is estimated to cost about $70,000 beginning in March 2018 and continuing through March 2023, Hatfield said. The board endorsed Hatfield's proposal, moving it forward to the planning stage.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].