Redrawing District Lines 'A Political Decision'

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With only a few months left to decide the new boundaries of Gila County's supervisor districts, about 35 Rim country residents met Thursday night at the Inn of Payson to provide input on three alternative plans.

Attendees listened as Anthony Sissons of Phoenix-based Research Advisory Services, a company hired to assist in the preparation and actual drawing of the boundaries, explained the three plans selected by a redistricting committee appointed by the three supervisors.

Much of Sissons' presentation focused on racial percentages and to what extent each plan diluted minority representation. Under the Voting Rights Act, he said, the Department of Justice takes a close look at the effect redistricting has on minority voting strength.

The three plans are:

Plan 1: Submitted by Payson Mayor Ray Schum, this plan would create two "urbanized" districts the Payson and Globe areas and a third rural district made up of the rest of the county. Many in the audience spoke in favor of this plan, including Jim White on behalf of Mayor Schum, Vice Mayor Dick Wolfe, and Ruth Craig, chairperson of the Payson Planning and Zoning Commission.

"In our opinion, this is the only plan that follows all the design considerations," White said. "It is politically competitive, keeps the core districts intact, and we think the Justice Department would approve it."

Among those who disagreed was John Breninger, a Pine resident, who argued that Plan 1 would result in "the two urban districts running the show."

Plans 2 and 3: These plans, which are almost identical, separate the Tonto Apache Reservation and Star Valley from Payson by placing them in District 3. They also separate Payson's Precinct 2 by placing it in District 2, which, Schum points out, "ends in the Miami area, about 85 miles away."

Sissons called Plan 2 the "minimalist plan" with the least amount of change from existing boundaries.

Plan 3, he said, does the best job of maintaining racial balances.

Sissons also briefly introduced a fourth plan just presented to the committee two days ago. It would result in the creation of small geographic districts in the extreme northern and southern ends of the county by placing Payson Precinct 2, Star Valley and Zane Grey in District 3, and including all the southern part of the county not in the San Carlos Apache Reservation in District 2.

The county is required by federal law to draw new electoral district boundaries based on the results of the 2000 census. Those results indicated that District 1, which encompasses most of the Rim country, had 21,844 residents last year. Districts 2 and 3 to the south had 13,778 and 15,713 residents respectively.

Elections Director Dixie Mundy said that federal law requires the new districts be within 10 percent of one another in population.

"The ideal balance would be 17,112 citizens in each district," Mundy said.

The three plans are now being presented at a series of public meetings leading up to the selection of a final plan by the county board of supervisors. Of the five scheduled meetings, Thursday's meeting was the only one held in Payson.

Schum was unable to attend the meeting because he is in Nogales for the Governor's Rural Development Conference. Prior to the meeting, however, he said he is concerned that the plan the supervisors finally select will not fairly reflect northern Gila County's growing population.

"Our goal is not to alienate the southern part of the county, but the population has shifted and everybody should recognize that," Schum said. "They're going to fight to keep the two supervisors in the southern end of the county."

The mayor plans to make a presentation on the three plans and ask for a resolution of support for his plan at the Sept. 13 meeting of the Payson Town Council. He is also making presentations to organizations and groups around the Rim country.

The supervisors must select a final plan from the three presented to them by Dec. 1.

"The Department of Justice then has 60 days to approve whatever plan they come up with," county administrator Steve Besich said.

The Justice Department could request an extension that would give it 120 days to pass judgment, Sissons said.

The decision, Besich said, is complex.

"There are certain population centers and a lot of open space in this county, and the solution they come up with has to include everybody," he said.

But because several options for accomplishing that objective are possible, there is a subjective element.

"This is one of the true political decisions the board has to make," Besich said.

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