Kent’s new ward maps still in progress, won’t be on ballot

The Kent City Council ward map as of Sept. 10, 2023. These wards do not currently satisfy the city charter, which requires a population differential of less than 10% among the wards. Image via the City of Kent

Kent City Council has so far decided not to decide how many people should populate each of the city’s six wards, and recently pulled a ballot measure that would have instead let voters make that decision.

Kent’s city charter stipulates that each of the city’s six wards are within a 10% population differential. The problem is that those population counts are based on the most recent U.S. Census, meaning ward maps must be tweaked every decade.

Council Member Heidi Shaffer Bish said Kent’s 2020 census data was flawed because of the pandemic — Kent State closed two weeks prior to the count, sending thousands of students home and out of town.

Flawed data or not, Community Development Director Bridget Susel had no choice but to ask council to approve revised ward maps, and she did so in August and September.

Instead of approving either set of maps, council punted the question to voters, asking them to approve a charter amendment that would set a 15% population differential between wards. That measure would have appeared on the March 19 primary ballot.

In January, however, council back-pedaled when Kent Law Director Hope Jones apprised its members of perhaps problematic court cases. Council withdrew the ballot measure, meaning the city’s 10% threshold still exists, and Kent is out of compliance.

The U.S. Supreme Court calls the 10% disparity “ideal,” and numerous legal precedents suggest that cities that exceed it may be called upon in court to provide an acceptable rationale for doing so.

In advising council, Jones pointed to the case of Regensburger v. City of Bowling Green, Ohio, which had students at Bowling Green State University suing the city of Bowling Green, alleging that its ward maps were drawn in such a way as to effectively disenfranchise large numbers of students.

The Northern District of Ohio court in 2002 determined that the city was wrong to draw three of its ward maps on population distributions, and the one where most of the students lived on the number of registered voters. Most students, both sides agreed, were not registered voters.

Relying on several legal precedents, court documents noted that deviations from the ideal 10% ward population deviation are not deal breakers, but are important when determining if ward maps comply with the Constitution’s equal protection (one-person-one-vote) clause.

Bowling Green’s ward population deviation was almost 67%. The city was ordered to redraw its ward maps purely on the basis of population, and to submit the maps to the appellate court for approval.

Voting against rescinding Kent’s ordinance from the ballot — meaning they’d still rather have city voters decide — were council members Shaffer Bish and Robin Turner. In favor of pulling the issue from the ballot were council members Jack Amrhein, Melissa Celko, Chris Hook, Jeff Clapper, Mike DeLeone, Gwen Rosenberg and Roger Sidoti.

Turner said he did not feel it was appropriate to rescind the charter amendment from the ballot. Doing so amounts to an overreaction to Jones’ statements and encourages “political whiplash,” where wards lose a sense of common history; when ward boundaries are more stable, people know who their representatives are and where their polling places are, he said.

While acknowledging that anyone can sue over anything, Turner said the Bowling Green disparity was so much greater than Kent’s that he did not believe the case was even applicable.

“I don’t feel we were in violation of anything. It’s one thing to be made aware of something that could possibly be problematic, but nobody had raised that. No one had taken us to court about it,” Turner said.

Demanding a 10% differential is disruptive to constituents, some of whom must wonder every decade who their new council member is, Shaffer Bish said. She and her colleagues agreed that a 15% differential would mean they would not have to consider new boundaries now, and could possibly keep ward boundaries stable for decades to come.

Council members are still expected to vote on Susel’s second set of maps this year, but any revisions the Board of Elections approve will take effect in 2025, Susel said.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.