Long-running battle over redistricting in judge's hands
Updated 8:23 pm, Thursday, July 18, 2013
A Superior Court judge was urged Wednesday to issue an injunction against a new eight-voting district map adopted this spring by the Representative Town Meeting's Republican majority and instead, the lawyer representing the Democratic plaintiff said, keep in place the previous 10-district plan.
But the lawyer representing Republican Registrar of Voters Roger Autuori claimed that the status quo is now the eight-district plan approved in May after more than a year's impasse between the two political parties over redistricting.
A decision in the dispute over the GOP-backed plan to reconfigure local voting districts is expected to be handed down by Judge Mary E. Sommer by the end of the week.
Democrat Jack Slane, a former RTM moderator, filed an appeal seeking a temporary injunction against the reconfigured districts -- approved by the RTM on a party-line vote -- which would cut the number of local voting districts from 10 to eight and the number of RTM members from 50 to 40.
Prior to the full RTM's vote on the plan presented by three GOP members of the body's Redistricting Committee, Town Attorney Stanton Lesser had advised RTM Moderator Jeffrey Steele that the legislative body could vote only on a plan that was issued by the committee, per the town charter.
The evenly divided committee -- made up of three Republicans and three Democrats -- wrangled for more than a year over a new map for voting districts without coming to agreement.
Any ordinance adopted on redistricting that did not come from the committee, Lesser advised the full RTM, would be null and void because it was in violation of the charter.
Joel Green, the lawyer representing Slane, said not only was the RTM vote a violation of the town charter, the map that was adopted by the legislative body was never filed with the Town Clerk's office, as required. He also said changes were made to the map by Autuori at Steele's direction, but those changes were never brought before the RTM to be ratified.
"There were many errors," Green said, although Robert Russo, the lawyer representing Autuori, argued any changes made were minor and none led to any resident's voting rights being disenfranchised.
"Corrections had to be made before the ordinance was adopted," Green said.
He also quoted several letters to various town officials regarding the issue from Theodore Bromley, a lawyer with the Secretary of the State's office. Bromley advised town officials that office did not have any role in the local redistricting process and they should rely on the advice of their municipal attorney.
The lawyer representing the town in the case, Stephen Donahue, said the town attorney's obligation is to ensure that charter provisions are followed, and agreed that the charter requires any redistricting plan to first come from the Redistricting Committee before being voted on by the body as a whole.
"That simply did not happen in this case," he said.
Russo said he believed Green did a "fantastic job of nitpicking" a vote by the citizen volunteers who serve on the RTM, adding, "When a legislative body doesn't obey its own rules, it's essentially waiving its own rules."
He also questioned whether Slane had any standing to bring the injunction request because he was not harmed in any way by the RTM action.
In court Tuesday, Steele had testified that he chose to ignore Lesser's opinion about the legality of an ordinance that did not emanate from the Redistricting Committee.
"I read the wording and thought it was very vague," Steele testified, regarding the charter language.
Nowhere in the charter, he said, does it mention a "vote" by the committee on the redistricting ordinance. He said he consulted with several lawyers, including James Baldwin, former Republican Town Committee chairman and counsel for Town Clerk Betsy Browne, before allowing the RTM to vote on the GOP's redistricting plan.
Steele said he stepped in after the committee could not break its deadlock and told both parties they had until May 15 to submit a redistricting plan, which he would then put on the agenda for a vote later that month. The Democrats never submitted a plan.
"I looked at this as it was proposed by the Redistricting Committee, at least half of the committee," Steele said.
The adopted ordinance was proposed by the three GOP members of the committee.
John Mitola, D-2, a member of the committee, testified that at its September meeting, the group voted to present two 10-district plans to the full RTM in hopes of melding the two proposals into one. However, the attempted compromise was seemingly abandoned by the time the committee met in February, and Mitola said Republicans never brought forth a 10-district plan of their own and pressed for eight districts instead.
He also testified that he was not aware of any changes made to the map or ordinance after its adoption by the RTM. Autuori testified that he made changes at Steele's request, after his Democratic counterpart brought up a list of possible errors in the new map -- including some households not included in any voting district. Steele referred to those changes as technical in nature.
Another witness, Lenora Campbell, D-6, also a committee member, said the adopted redistricting plan would have a dramatic impact on certain voting districts, such as hers. Under the new plan, 11 incumbent members of the RTM are now all in District 6.
Russo said in court that granting an injunction against implementing the plan would cause "chaos." The Democratic Town Committee had planned to nominate its candidates for the November election Thursday, but given the uncertainty of the lawsuit's impact, decided to nominate only townwide candidates Thursday and hope to choose RTM candidates Tuesday.
The GOP plans to have its caucus to nominate candidates Tuesday.
Further complicating the redistricting dispute was the failure to publish a legal notice of the RTM action within one week of the vote, as required.