District Lines Drawn As A "Starting Point"

Demographer Peter Morrison inadvertantly created a a mini-firestorm when he posted his first district plan onto the city website without an explanation that it was only a starting point, and that public input and direction from the District Commission will refine the plan to include neighborhood identity.

                       Story and Photographs By John Murray

 The first district proposal for electing aldermen by district has arrived in Waterbury, and while some outspoken critics of the process are supportive, others see it driven by inside politics, gerrymandering, and a ridiculous concept of joining Bunker Hill and portions of the East End in one district. The plan was created by Dr. Peter Morrison of Nantucket, Massachusetts, described as an impartial demographer with an impeccable record of creating and defending district lines.

   “What we’ve created is simply a starting point,” Morrison cautioned. “At tomorrow night’s meeting I look forward to hearing from the District Commission and the public about how we can refine the plan.”

The first plan posted to the city website at waterburyct.org

   For legal reasons Morrison said his initial effort was directed to protecting the rights of black and Hispanics protected by the Federal Voter’s Registration Act. He is confident that the 2nd and 4th districts (the North End and South End) he has laid out can withstand legal challenges, and that the voting power of federally protected minorities has not been diluted.

   “When we begin the process tomorrow night there is not a lot we can do with those two districts, “ Morrison said. “We might move a district line a block or two one way or another, but for legal reasons, they are pretty much set.”

Jimmie Griffin

  Community activist Jimmie Griffin, the former head of the NAACP in Connecticut, has been a vocal critic of the District Commission process, yet when he saw the first plan he took to social media and wrote, “I like this plan which maintains most of both the 72nd and 75th districts where African Americans and Latinos are now living, and they would benefit from being able elect those who represent their community interest as well as the city's.”

   The rest of the map, Morrison said, can be changed any way the District Commission and public desire.

   “I have no dog in this race,” Morrison said. “I don’t know the politics and neighborhoods of Waterbury, and the entire rim around the core districts can be refined any way we want.”

   Morrison stressed that he has spent little time so far focused on the three districts surrounding the city core, and the political controversy stirred up by breaking up three powerful incumbents from the Bunker Hill neighborhood was merely accidental.

   “I don’t know who is who, and I don’t know who hopes to be mayor one day,” Morrison said. “The line was drawn that way to avoid having an extreme number of incumbents in one district, and it is just a starting point.”

   Morrison said after he hears from the District Commission and the public tomorrow night he will come back with three refined plans for the January 14th meeting, and solicit further input from the community and District Commission.

  Waterbury citizens have to pay close attention to the historical process unfolding this month that will impact how voters elect the legislative body of municipal government. Two months ago Waterbury resoundingly voted to elect its 15 aldermen by district (five districts with three aldermen from each district). This is an historic change from the at-large system Waterbury used for the past 100 years, a system that left half the city with no direct representation, and the other half with clusters of aldermen from the same affluent neighborhoods on the rim of the city.

   Now the fight is where to draw the lines.

  A political brushfire erupted when the first plan was posted to the city website Monday and the district map solved the Democrat nightmare of having it’s top three aldermen – all with future mayoral aspirations – separated by what appeared to be gerrymandering.

   A headline in the Republican-American newspaper yesterday proclaimed, “Plan Would Save 3 Aldermen; 1st draft of districts protects incumbents.”

   Rep-Am reporter Penny Overton wrote…
 
   “Three prominent Bunker Hill Democrats would be able to keep their aldermanic seats in an aldermanic voting district plan released Monday. The proposed configuration, if approved, would allow these three to avoid facing each other in the November city elections, even though they live within a few blocks of each other.
   The map would split Board President Paul K. Pernerewski Jr. and Majority Leader Anthony T. Piccochi off into one district, and top vote-getter Ronald A. Napoli Jr. into another.
   “It’s certainly interesting,” Pernerewski said of the map. “It’s been interesting from the start. And it isn’t over, either. It is only a first draft. There will be at least two others.”
   “I like this one,” Piccochi said. “I like this one a lot.”

   The plan was immediately panned by Republican alderwoman Stephanie Cummings who described it on social media as “gerrymandering at its finest”, and by Republican alderman Steve Giacomi who said the concept of having an alderman from Bunker Hill represent portions of the East End was, “inherently silly.”

Republican alderman Steve Giacomi

   Morrison said incumbency will be a factor in drawing the final lines, but so will neighborhoods. “I have been told that Waterbury has very strong neighborhoods, and we will work on keeping the neighborhoods as intact as possible,” Morrison said. “We need the public to express itself now, and tell us what they want.”

    Attorney Daniel Casagrande was hired by the city to guide the District Commission through the process and reiterated what Peter Morrison said. “We have just begun the process,” Casagrande said. “After Dr. Morrison presents his initial work tomorrow night we will seek public input. We want the public to be involved in the process.”

   Casagrande said the districting process will raise political issues and the barometer of public opinion will be very high.

   ‘There will be a balance required,” Casagrande said. “The final districts will be a reflection of legal principals and the comments expressed from various stakeholders in the community.”

  Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary said his job in the process is complete. He helped organize the eight person District Commission and made city assets available to hire both Morrison and Casagrande. "They are experts and the only thing I've said is that I want this done right," O'Leary said. "This is our legacy."

    The meeting begins at 6:30 pm Thursday night, January 8th in Aldermanic Chambers inside Waterbury City Hall. City residents can also go to waterburyct.org and click on the “Aldermen By District” tab on the right to follow the process. So express yourself Waterbury. Be part of the district process right now, this is history.