Turns out there’s one surefire way to demolish public trust, and the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission found it.
Government officials leveraging shaky legal justifications to hide behind closed doors to discuss matters of public import isn’t a new invention. But it is a disappointing turn for the 13-member board that was formed to bring transparency to our state’s once-per-decade process of redrawing state and federal political districts.
Worse, when confronted about their now-festering transparency deficit, the people in charge of the panel and its public communications doubled down on their claim of legitimacy for their recent murkiness.
It’s reasonable for the uninitiated to ask “what murkiness?”
After all, wasn’t a ballot proposal supported by Michigan voters in 2018 — the one that formed the commission in the first place — intended to deconstruct the previous structure of closed-door meetings by politicians wherein the party in power at the close of a given decade was allowed to rewrite maps to its advantage?
That old system is the one that resulted in some ridiculously gerrymandered legislative boundaries, the kind where lawmakers wrapped and contorted lines to ensure re-election for friends or allies and diluted opponents’ supporters.
The backlash against that system of politicians choosing their voters was an amendment to the state Constitution that formed the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission — a randomly selected group of registered voters (four Democrats, four registered and five who have no ties to either party).
Heck, the Constitutional amendment that forms and empowers the commission commands the group to “conduct all of its business at open meetings.”
That kind of declaration, enshrined in the highest law in the state, doesn’t leave much wiggle room for the MICRC, yet wriggle, squirm and dodge it did.
Turns out a majority of those commissioners think “some” or “most” are reasonable substitutes for “all”.
They proved as much on Oct. 27 when the panel decided in an 11-2 vote to flat-out disregard that Constitutional charge by retreating to a closed-session to receive a couple of legal opinions from their taxpayer-funded lawyer.
It’s hard to fathom any public benefit derived from withholding information or discussions in the process to redraw our political maps — the lawyers’ memos discussed in that closed meeting and now being withheld from the public are titled “Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting.” Those two documents and eight others have been declared exempt from disclosure, according to the commission’s communications director.
Is there really something so damning in those memos that commissioners feel it’s worth violating their constitutional charge and demolishing our state’s progress toward a transparent, trustworthy redistricting mechanism?
And if so, the gravity of those documents make them far more important to disclose as we enter a 45-day public comment period for current draft maps.
Michiganders voted to reject a redistricting system that allowed backroom dealing, they didn’t ask to exchange one murky system for another.
The window is closing for commissioners to reverse course and patch up the trust wound they inflicted on the redistricting process.
How they decided to act in the coming days will tell us just how much value they place on the transparency and public trust their board was wrought to ensure.