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Council wants closer look at data

BERLIN—The Berlin Town Council and Mayor Gee Williams want to take a closer look at how the computerized modeling system used to incorporate new census data into defining future election districts resulted with two proposals that could unseat two current council members and one that would flip their districts.
During a Dec. 16 work session Deputy Town Administrator Mary Bohlen presented the computer models, which were developed by town staff and an official with the Maryland Department of Planning’s State Clearinghouse Re-districting Office. The redistricting process, which would adjust election districts that were previously assigned in 2004, is scheduled to be adopted and presented to Board of Elections officials in Worcester County by mid-January, according to a staff memorandum.
The redistricting of Berlin’s election district boundaries is in response to updated population data from the 2010 U.S. Census and is meant to keep the town’s four election districts of equal size (1,124 residents), by ensuring that no district deviates by more than 5 percent of the 1,124 resident goal. Berlin has a population of 4,496 residents, according to the adjusted data.
Most of the population shifts necessitating modifications to town districts were attributed to demographic changes that have occurred in or near the predominately African American Flower Street neighborhood. For example, the nearby Decatur Farms development added 707 residents to Berlin’s residential area east of U.S. Route 113, which is represented by Town Council Vice President Elroy Brittingham (District 3).
Other developments that have added to Berlin’s population since the last time the district maps were adjusted included the Cottages of Berlin and Purnell Crossing.
Councilmember Dean Burrell represents District 4, which is also a predominately African American neighborhood.
The standard town officials have followed since the 1980’s is that at least one district be comprised of a majority of the town’s historical ethnic minority population—African Americans—which used to be roughly 40 percent of the town’s overall population. However, the ethnic minority population in Decatur Farms is only 10 percent, which is causing the minority ratio in District 3 to shift over time.
The challenge the town is attempting to meet is to comply with both meeting its redistricting requirements while avoiding disenfranchisement of its minority residents.
Technically, any one of the proposals could be adopted and would be a legally valid and equitable plan as far as the numbers goes, according to Bohlen.
But when redrawing the boundary lines to capture the appropriate population and demographic totals, Bohlen said, “Little changes make a big difference.” In some cases the proposed lines could literally separate council members from their constituents. Rather than creating their own population and demographic research, town officials are using the data models that already exist from federal census data, she said.
The district sizes proposed in Plan One are within acceptable parameters for population numbers and percentages, Bohlen had told the council during the meeting.
In a Dec. 27 interview she explained the reasoning and goals of the proposals presented.
She described Plan One as a benchmark, a first attempt that merely moved the boundary lines to capture enough residents to meet the appropriate representation numbers. However, if the proposal were immediately implemented Brittingham would be unseated, due to changes in the boundary lines and a special election would have to be called.
Plan Two’s proposed shifting of the boundary lines would produce population numbers that would be closer to the ideal of 1,124 residents for each district and include at least one district with a minority majority, according to Bohlen. However, the boundary adjustments would also unseat incumbent councilmembers for both Districts 3 and 4. She explained, to achieve the appropriate population goals, the boundary lines would need to shift in such a way that would leave Brittingham’s home physically in Burrell’s district and vice versa.
Seeing that each of the proposed models would unseat two incumbents, Bohlen said she consulted the members of the town’s Board of Elections for input on a way to achieve the needed population numbers without unseating elected councilmembers. As a result of that meeting, Bohlen described Plan Three, which proposed using the same boundary adjustments as proposed in Plan Two, but switching, or “flip-flopping”, Brittingham in District 3 with Burrell in District 4.
This will preserve the incumbents’ seats and maintain the favorable population numbers for these districts, she reported to the town council in the memo.
During a Dec. 20 interview, Brittingham said he did not understand the need to flip flop the districts, since one would still be a predominately minority district. “Why would you want to change Council member Burrell’s and my districts?” Brittingham asked. “I don’t know. I don’t have any guesses,” he said.
In a separate Dec. 20 interview Williams said the councilmembers have requested that Nasrin Rahman, manager of the Department of Planning’s Redistricting and Reapportionment office, meet with the council in person, to demonstrate how the modeling was conducted and to further explain the proposed changes. Town Administrator Laura Allen confirmed that same day that the town staff was in the process of trying to schedule the meeting.
Both Williams and Bohlen acknowledged that Berlin’s demographics are continuing to shift and each new housing development near the Flower Street neighborhood is lowering the ratio of the ethnic minority population. If the trend continues, Williams said, in future redistricting proposals town officials might have to consider creating a fifth election district and converting the current “At-Large” councilmember seat to a seat assigned to represent it.
Bohlen concurred with Williams’ projection of a possible future scenario, adding, “It’s not out of the question that you could end up with a district that is an island [minority district] at some point.”
As was done during the 2004 re-districting of posting, the town staff recommended posting the proposed the information in a large variety of locations, and publishing notices in the local media.