Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Judge upholds new County Council districts

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LaPorte County Circuit Judge Thomas Alevizos Thursday ruled against a challenge to the Porter County Commissioners’ new County Council districts.

The judge did however order that the Commissioners make changes to correct errors in the ordinance.

County Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, and registered voters affected by changes in the Commissioners’ redistricting plan sought to have the ordinance be declared illegal and invalid because not all of the districts were contiguous as required by state law.

Rivas subsequently filed a claim that his civil rights were being violated as he contended the Commissioners purposefully removed him from his district to prevent him from running as an incumbent in District 2.

Alevizos in his finding of facts acknowledges that District 2 and District 1 are not contiguous because Westchester Twp. precinct 17 is split. Three census blocks in the precinct are unattached to the remainder of the others, creating a “bubble area” completely enclosed by precincts in District 1.

According to the ruling, the precinct was split in December 2011 when the County Board of Commissioners adopted a new precinct map.

Alevizos said he feels the proper remedy would be to “remove the bubble area” from District 2 and make it a part of District 1, without redrawing the rest of the districts. This he found more favorable than the solution sought by the plaintiffs to keep the former district boundaries which Alevizos said would be unconstitutional because it would exceed the state’s population deviation limit of 10 percent between districts.

In his ruling, Alevizos wrote that county commissioner boards in Indiana are to regularly restructure their four council districts to comply with certain statutory requirements in the year following a decennial census.

County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, gave testimony saying that his board had given consideration to a redistricting ordinance in 2011 but none was adopted at that time.

Evidence entered into the record shows said that a study done by DePauw University students indicated other Indiana counties did not redistrict in 2011, which prompted redistricting in a number of counties in late 2013.

All three Porter County Commissioners unanimously adopted Ordinance 13-17 to reconfigure districts on Dec. 17, 2013. Commissioner Laura Shurr Blaney, D-South, also cast her vote in favor, making it a bipartisan agreement, the ruling said.

Blaney testified that the existing County Council districts prior to Ordinance 13-17 exceeded the 10 percent population deviation limits set by the state. She also testified she had no intention of removing Rivas from District 2.

In his conclusion, Alevizos said that the process leading up to the establishment of Ordinance 13-17 is “substantially compliant” with Indiana law and that the only exception is the “bubble area” which incidentally is only inhabited by two residents.

Alevizos said the fact a “small island” was created from Westchester Twp. Precinct 17 “inadvertent” on the Commissioners’ part.

Alevizos said he did not see reason for a preliminary injunction barring the ordinance and that granting the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction would “create added confusion and misunderstanding concerning election districts for the County Council.”

The Commissioners proposed an order to the court saying it would correct the “relatively minor technical defect” of incorporating the “bubble area” into District 1, which appears would only affect the two citizens living there, which would create less confusion and misunderstanding than the plaintiffs’ request to toss the ordinance, Alevizos said.

Meanwhile, Alevizos said he found it necessary to address Rivas’ civil rights violation claim.

He said that such a claim could be established with shown intent that a Board of Commissioners purposely moved district boarders to keep a certain candidate off a ballot.

Alevizos said in his ruling that the plaintiffs failed to establish in his court a cognizable civil rights claim “to a degree necessary for this court to grant a preliminary injunction.”

In support of the civil rights violation claim, the plaintiff’s had Portage Mayor James Snyder testify that he recalled having a conversation with Evans in the fall of 2013 that mentioned placing Rivas in a new district, but he was not able to remember the details of the discussion, the ruling said.

According to the ruling, Evans denied telling Snyder “he was out to get” Rivas off the County Council.

Alevizos called Snyder’s testimony “sketchy” and said both Evans and Blaney made clear denial of intent to harm Rivas.

However, the judge said that if the plaintiffs could offer evidence establishing intent to deprive Rivas’ right to run for reelection, they would be able to assert a valid civil rights claim.

Rivas had told the Chesterton Tribune that he intends to move his residency within the confines of the new District 2 to satisfy the requirement to run for reelection.

The filing period for County races will go on as scheduled.

Candidates have until Feb. 7 at noon to file documents in the Voters Registration office.

Currently, no one has filed in any of the four County Council district races.

Meanwhile, the County Commissioners will hold a special meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 1 p.m. to address the redistricting challenge and the changes that need to be made.

 

 

Posted 1/24/2014