Keene’s City Charter, like the state and federal constitutions, provides a framework for how things ought to be run at this level of government. Like those cherished documents, it’s impressive in its comprehensiveness and flexibility; while much is set in stone, there is room for a given City Council to interpret as well.
But as has been noted of both constitutions, there are some occurrences that our forefathers simply couldn’t have anticipated, and therefore, instances where the council has to do its best to adhere to what its members think the charter’s drafters might have done, or at least, what they think best resolves an unanticipated issue moving forward.
Last month, the council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee discussed such a situation.
The City Charter sets out provisions for updating the city’s five voting wards, which must be reapportioned every so often to ensure the ward councilors each serve a roughly equal number of voters. Those provisions are tied to the federal census, as they are in state and federal voting districts.
But because of the global pandemic, among other reasons, the census is running behind in providing the numbers from last year’s decennial nationwide count. So far behind, in fact, that under the city’s rules, there likely won’t be enough time to redraw the ward maps before a plan would be put to voters in November.
This means either the council needs to change the provisions, or put off redistricting, which would violate the charter.
City Clerk Patty Little is advising the former. She told the committee it’s important the city’s wards align with state House districts, so voters don’t have to vote in multiple places during elections. Typically, she noted, voters would approve the new voting districts in the November election. Since there isn’t time to get it all done if, as announced, the census information isn’t available until Sept. 30, city officials want to give the City Council the authority to OK new districts.
The committee is slated to vote Thursday evening on whether to recommend a public hearing be held Aug. 19 on the subject. Barring any last-minute legal catches, we expect they’ll do so. It will then be up to the council whether to schedule the hearing, and ultimately, whether to take control of drawing the wards.
It seems apparent this year’s unusual circumstances warrant at least making an exception to the language in the charter, allowing the councilors to set the wards after the Nov. 2 election. Whether they ought to have that ability going forward by moving the setting of wards from the charter to the city code is a matter for debate.
One other issue raised before the committee that’s being worked into the language of a charter amendment concerns councilors affected by redrawing ward lines. It’s possible such a change could disenfranchise a sitting councilor, should their home suddenly move into a different ward than the one they were elected to serve. Councilor Bettina Chadbourne says that happened to her. She suggested a councilor in such a case be allowed to serve out their term.
That makes some sense, since it isn’t their choice to change wards. We do, however, wonder about situations where an issue comes before the council that would favor one ward over another, in particular, the councilor’s new ward over the one they ostensibly serve. It would seem to make sense from a political perspective, that the councilor would act favorably to the new ward, since those constituents would be voting for or against them in any future election.
It needs to be clear, however, that a councilor moving from one ward to another must give up their seat. Otherwise, there would be no reason to even have ward councilors. It also ought to be made clear that the power to redraw the wards is not one granted at will to the council, but reserved for the once-every-10-year occurrence that follows the census.