Keene will follow the lead of another New Hampshire community as it looks to adjust its redistricting process following news that data from the U.S. Census Bureau would be significantly delayed.
Last month, City Clerk Patty Little asked the council to consider an amendment to the city charter that would allow Keene to accommodate the late delivery of the census information, which isn’t expected until Sept. 30. The change would involve removing ward boundaries from the city charter and enabling the council to make decisions about boundary changes, rather than leaving it to the voters.
On Thursday, during a meeting of the council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee, Little said she shared charters from Lebanon, Concord and Nashua — which have already made this change — with City Attorney Tom Mullins for him to consider.
“He reviewed all of those documents, and he indicated that the model from Nashua really ... was succinct,” she said. “It said everything it needed to say and would be a good model for us to use.”
However, Little noted that the city plans to leave out some of the provisions in the Nashua model, including one that enables the council to initiate a redistricting effort outside of the 10-year federal requirement.
Little also expressed concern with Nashua’s 30-day notice requirement for public hearings related to redistricting — instead supporting Keene’s existing seven-day notice requirement — and with Nashua’s requirement that informational sessions be held in each ward, which she said could create logistical challenges in Keene.
Every 10 years, municipalities across the country are legally required to complete a redistricting process, informed by updated census information that is used by municipalities to determine where to set boundaries. Keene usually completes this process by August, more than a month before the this year’s census information is expected.
“This is a remedy that every New Hampshire city is going to face that currently has its voters adopting ward lines,” she said. “We are all going to have to shift away from having our ward line descriptions in the charter and move it to the city council, just to give us this opportunity to respond to the delay of the census data.”
In addition to removing the ward boundaries from the city charter and designating the council as the authority for approving ward changes, the amendment would establish a process for redistricting that would be outlined in the city code, rather than the charter. It would also include a provision that says ward councilors whose homes end up in a new district would be allowed to serve out the remainder of their terms.
While in the past ward-line changes have been put to a vote in the form of a ballot question, this year voters will instead be asked whether to give that authority to the council.
“Our objective is to have the ballot question on November 2021 municipal ballot,” Little said.
The redistricting process will affect Keene’s five wards, each of which is represented by two city councilors. Each ward also has various election officers, whom voters select during the city’s annual elections.
Redistricting at the city level also affects the process at the state level, with each ward representing a different legislative district under the current map.
Little has said that in the past that having ward lines and state district lines not match up has resulted in some people being required to vote for certain offices at one polling place and other offices at another. Getting the city’s redistricting process done in time for it to be used during the state redistricting process is one of the major reasons for the proposed charter amendment, she said.
The Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing on the proposed charter amendment for Aug. 19.