Huge population differences that have developed in the past decade in the five Gila Commun-ity College districts will force a dramatic shift in boundaries, according to recently released census figures.
Those changes could well shift the balance of power decisively north on one of the most deeply divided and contentious elected boards in the county.
The largest community college district now has more than 30 percent more residents than the smallest district, well in excess of the 10-percent maximum gap courts have accepted in the past.
Currently, the boundaries of chairman Bob Ashford’s District 4 in Globe include 8,972 residents — a 5-percent decrease from 2000.
By contrast, the boundaries of board member Tom Loeffler’s District 1 in Payson now include 11,670 residents — an 8-percent increase in the past decade.
On the face of it, the big population gains in the north county would argue for a shift in power by the time the redistricting smoke clears on a board marked by fierce political struggles.
However, the shifts in minority populations will complicate any new boundaries, especially with a likely review by the U.S. Justice Department, charged with protecting the rights and political clout of minority voters.
Currently, the voters of northern Gila County are divided into District 1 and District 2, which has 11,342 voters and is represented by Larry Stephenson. Those two districts now include 43 percent of the county’s population.
Stephenson and Loeffler have become increasingly estranged from the board majority in the past year, mostly on issues concerning GCC’s contract with Eastern Arizona College, which manages GCC’s budget and provides accreditation in return for a 25 percent overhead charge on everything GCC spends.
Loeffler has even called for an investigation by the attorney general’s office into the board majority’s alleged violation of the open meeting law and a decision in December to suspend all of the board’s rules and bylaws, including term limits for the chairman.
The population shift to the north could result in north county board members gaining control of the board, which has until now remained firmly in Ashford’s control to the point that he won’t let dissident board members even put topics on the agenda.
Currently, northern Gila County voters dominate two districts, the San Carlos Apache Reservation dominates District 5 and the voters of Globe and Miami are adroitly divided between the undersized District 4 and the crucial District 3, which includes the Tonto Basin and serves as the swing vote between north and south.
The concentration of Hispanic voters in the Globe area and Native American voters on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation will likely play a big role in the task of actually drawing those boundaries.
Arizona is one of 16 states that must submit its redistricting plan to the Justice Department, which rejected the first draft of the Arizona plan in 2000 and in 1990. The Justice Department determined that Arizona’s plan would have marginalized and diluted the political power of minority communities in Maricopa and Pinal counties in 2000.
The Justice Department guidelines favor nearly equal populations in each district, but also seek to create districts in which minority candidates have a chance of winning if they run for election.
Generally, that means the Justice Department will only approve a plan that keeps minority communities in the same district as much as possible — especially if the district will have at least 55 percent minority voters.
Currently, Districts 1 and 2 in the north have only a smattering of Hispanic and Native American voters — perhaps 10 percent between the two groups.
District 3 has a total of 22 percent Hispanic voters — mostly residents of Globe and Miami at the far southern end of the district.
On the other hand, District 4 has a 34 percent Hispanic population, plus 3 percent Native Americans.
District 5 has a population that’s 20 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Native American, thanks to the inclusion of the San Carlos Apache Reservation and a concentration of Hispanic voters in Winkelman and Hayden.
The key to the balance of power in the revised districts will depend on the boundaries of District 3, which currently includes Miami, part of Globe, Roosevelt Lake, the Tonto Basin, Gisela and Young.
Ideally, each district should have 10,719 residents.
The redistricting committee could even out that population easily.
The most obvious shift would be to take about 1,500 residents from Districts 1 and 2 in northern Gila County and shift them into District 3.
Line drawers would then have to compensate for that shift by moving about 1,000 residents in the southern reaches of District 3 into Ashford’s District 4 — which is about 1,400 residents too small.
Finally, the line drawers could shift about 500 residents from District 5 to District 4, taking care not to break up the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
But would such a shift run afoul of the Justice Department?
Maybe not — especially if the shifts ended up increasing the number of Hispanic voters in District 4.
Currently, southern Gila County’s Hispanic residents are scattered among three districts — none of which has a Hispanic board member. The percentages of Hispanic voters in each district range from 20 to 34 — all well under the Justice Department’s preference for a 55 percent minority district when possible.
Of course, fierce political struggles no doubt lie ahead for the citizen volunteers on the county’s redistricting commission — which currently has six members who live in the north and six members who live in the south.
All have said they will settle on lines that are fair and balanced.
However, so far the committee hasn’t been able to actually elect a chairman.