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Redistricting proves a challenge for Burlington City Council

This map shows the oddly shaped layout of Ward 8, comprised primarily of college students, which went into effect in 2015. Some City Council members noted it has become known as the “salamander ward” for its tail-like shape to encompass on-campus student areas south of Main Street and portions of the Hill Section commonly associated with high concentrations of off-campus housing. File courtesy image

Burlington residents take pride in the city’s distinct neighborhoods — from the New North End to the South End, or Downtown up to the Hill Section.

But where those neighborhood boundaries should be drawn for electoral purposes isn’t always clear. Just ask the Burlington City Council, which has been struggling since January to find consensus on how to redraw those lines.

The council is working with a deadline, too. It needs to approve a new map no later than Dec. 12 to have it on the ballot by Town Meeting Day in March, according to Councilor Ben Traverse, D-Ward 5. If voters approve the map, the Vermont Legislature will be asked to sign off on it so it can take effect in 2024. 

Councilors have already blown a couple of deadlines. They had been aiming to send the new map to voters on Town Meeting Day 2022. When they missed that deadline, they turned their focus to the November election, but that, too, came and went.

“I think we’ve been making slow and steady progress on trying to narrow options and build consensus on the council around a plan,” Councilor Mark Barlow, I-North District said.

Burlington’s current electoral map has a total of eight wards, with one councilor elected per ward. Four additional councilors represent districts that encompass two wards each.

When the council goes back to the drawing board for more map options — which it has done repeatedly — it goes to one person at the city’s planning office: Nancy Stetson, senior policy and data analyst. In an interview, Stetson said the process has been “very iterative.” 

“It’s just been a kind of constant process over the fall of drawing these maps, finding out what parts about the maps people don’t like and trying to continue to edit them so that we get to a map that everyone will like,” Stetson said.

Redistricting is tied to the U.S. Census, conducted every 10 years. When new population data is released, if the least populous ward varies by more than 10% from the most populous ward, city officials have to redraw the electoral map. This occurred in Burlington after the 2020 Census, which showed that Ward 1’s population grew significantly, driven by the Bayberry Commons development off Grove Street.

In June 2021, the council formed a citizen committee to seek public input on redistricting.  Each neighborhood planning assembly in the city chose representatives who compiled feedback into a report to the council. 

In that report, the committee identified three major issues with the current map. 

It concluded that Ward 8, comprised primarily of college students, “is not working in its current configuration,” according to the report. Some residents deemed the ward “inherently undemocratic” and listed problems such as low voter turnout among the student populations and difficulty in finding poll workers. Council members have also mentioned the challenges of reaching out to voters, since student dorms are closed to nonstudents.

According to Stetson, on-campus students make up 76% of Ward 8’s population. 

In describing Ward 8, some City Council members noted it has become known as the “salamander ward” for its tail-like shape to encompass on-campus student areas south of Main Street and portions of the Hill Section commonly associated with high concentrations of off-campus housing. 

The committee also reported that residents disliked the district system, stating that it felt like having “half a councilor,” since each district covers two wards.

Finally, the committee said the wards should be configured to preserve neighborhoods.

After the committee finished its work, the City Council took over, working with the city planning office to develop maps that incorporated as many of the recommendations as possible.

Barlow, an independent, said the council started out by keeping an open mind about how many wards to include, but some preferences emerged along party lines. Democrats generally favored larger wards, while Progressives preferred smaller ones, Barlow said. Jack Hanson, who resigned from the council in September, proposed 12 city wards with one councilor per ward, Barlow said, but most options focused on seven or eight wards.

Both Barlow and Traverse said that some Old North End residents objected to a seven-ward system because it would require moving some areas of that neighborhood into New North End wards. 

During an Oct. 24 working session on redistricting, the council mostly debated the number of wards. At the end, councilors voted to proceed with an eight-ward map, without deciding on where the boundaries would go.

The council ran into a stumbling block at another working session on Nov. 7. 

“We didn’t really have people from the affected part of Ward 1 at our last working session,” Barlow explained. The East District seat is vacant following Hanson’s resignation, and the Ward 8 seat is also vacant after Ali House resigned. Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, was absent from the Nov. 7 meeting.

The council voted to move forward with a set of map options called “Ward 8 to North Hills” that would change the boundaries of Ward 8 to include parts of what is now Ward 1.

Sharon Bushor, a former city councilor and resident of Ward 1, said she objected to the current map options that move part of the North Hill Section into Ward 8 because that includes Ward 1’s highest concentration of homeowners. 

“So I see this as putting that section of Ward 1 at risk,” Bushor said. “I also looked at my old annual reports and really noticed that most of our election officials come from the section that they’re carving out.”

Bushor wrote a public post on Front Porch Forum, asking her neighbors in Ward 1 to reach out to the council. 

“Ward 1 is a cohesive yet diverse group of homeowners, long term renters, professionals and students,” Bushor wrote. “It is a wonderful ward with its own identity. It is not the Old North End nor the New North End, nor the South End, nor the Downtown. Our identity is Ward 1. A diverse collection of people and ideas working as a single unit, Ward 1.”

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