Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) City Council members ought not be involved in selecting their own ward boundaries and making last-minute amendments outside of committee should be avoided, the City Council president cautioned her peers on Wednesday.

The statement comes as the Missoula City Council considers new ward boundaries to accommodate for population growth. The practice takes place every two years ahead of municipal elections and the redistricting map, as proposed, was created using statistical data and growth patterns.

The changes have a few council members upset given that certain neighborhoods could partially move into a new ward. But the city is growing and by its own charter, it must keep wards in statistical balance.

As a result, City Council president Gwen Jones said change happens, so get over it.

“We have a different scenario now and we really know where our growth is going to come,” Jones said. “That's what staff is looking to as they lay the base for gradual readjustments. It's just change, and we're going to have to cope with it because frankly, there's going to be more change and more redistricting coming down the road.”

The proposed redistricting map has been before the City Council now for a month and early on, council members expressed very few thoughts or concerns.

But on Monday night, one council member suddenly expressed outrage at the new boundaries, suggesting her ward would suffer a loss of “identity” if the changes were approved. Another council member waited until Monday to express his interest in creating new wards and adding more council members.

Jones took issue with the 11th hour lamentations.

“We should be doing the bulk of our work in committee, earlier on rather than later,” Jones said. “When it's quiet in a committee meeting and something sits there for four weeks and all of a sudden on Monday night there's all sorts of issues raised, that's not an efficient use of our time and it's not good government.”

A city map shows each city ward and circles represent new development, which must be addressed through redistricting.
A city map shows each city ward and circles represent new development. Such population changes must be addressed through redistricting.

Jones also cautioned members of council from avoiding an obvious conflict of interest – having an elected official work to sway the boundaries of his or her own ward.

Past city councils have gone to great lengths to avoid the appearance of gerrymandering, but this time around, some council members have attempted to influence the boundaries of the proposed redistricting map, if for no other reason than to keep certain neighborhoods intact and under their jurisdiction.

“The Legislature does not set their districts. They have a panel that sets their districts, and there is good reason for keeping it at arms' length from the people being voted into office,” Jones said. “We should think long and hard about us making any proposals for changes to this, because we're the ones being voted in. We have staff and they have directives on how to approach this in a thoughtful, analytical way. Frankly, we need to step out of the way and let staff do their job.”

Most members of council on Wednesday said they were satisfied with the proposed map, which looks to adjust ward boundaries to accommodate for growth in portions of the city. Council member Kristen Jordan, who expressed frustration at the changes to her ward on Monday, wasn't present at Wednesday's discussion.

But those who were present agreed to move on with the map as proposed.

“Having elected officials draw ward boundaries is a terrible idea,” said council member Jennifer Savage. “It should rest with staff and should not be left with electeds.”

While the Legislature could make changes to state law that in turn could affect Missoula government, including a proposal to move elections to even years, council members want to have the new ward boundaries adopted before April 20, when the filing window opens for municipal candidates.

Failing to meet that deadline could cast more confusion into this year's election, which could be further clouded by pending state legislation.

“I feel strongly this needs to be done by filing so everyone who wants to file on April 20 can file and they know what ward they're in,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “We're in a situation now knowing where the majority of growth is going to be so that we're not flip-flopping ward boundaries, which was my concern.”