SOUTH BEND – The fight over redesigned St. Joseph County electoral maps could see a partial resolution this week, with county council due to vote Tuesday on competing redistribution proposals.
But taxpayers still will not have seen any of the behind-the-scenes files of this year’s controversial redistribution process. A request for South Bend Tribune emails from officials involved in the process – public records under Indiana law – has been pending for nearly three months.
The Tribune was told that a mixture of computer issues, confusion and the volume of records involved was to blame.
Why are emails important?
In public, Democrats and Republicans have accused each other of playing politics with this year’s redistribution. What they wrote to each other in emails, however, remains a secret.
Following:Will St. Joseph County Council solve the redistribution conundrum by January 1?
Democrats who control the council are fighting cards approved by the all-Republican Council of Commissioners, the county’s executive body. These cards could give the GOP an edge in county elections over the next decade, as they create larger Republican advantages in two of the three commissioner districts, while potentially creating more favorable council seats for Republicans.
Democrats criticized the GOP cards as being gerrymandered and potentially illegal, threatening to sue. Republicans say their cards were drawn to meet legal requirements and avoid politics, while claiming Democrats dragged their feet and would waste time and money on litigation.
On October 8, The Tribune filed a public record requesting emails from the nine county council members and the three commissioners about the redistribution process.
The Tribune’s request came after the commissioners hired the law firm of former Indiana House President Brian Bosma to help draw the electoral maps, a move that has sparked controversy due to the cabinet links with the GOP. Members of the Democratic Council then hired their own legal team, led by former Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Kip Tew.
The Tribune’s request would capture the email discussions between council members and commissioners during the early stages of the redistribution struggle, potentially showing whether, and to what extent, they discussed partisan political considerations – or any another detail that voters may find relevant.
The Tribune has since filed additional requests that would capture more recent emails.
Almost three months since Tribune’s first request, county officials have said three times that they need more time to collect and review the emails and have yet to release a single page.
In November, an assistant county attorney said the county IT department handed over the emails to her for legal review and that she expected to release the documents by December 17. However, on December 17, she said she had confused two of the Tribunes, and she had in fact not received a copy of the redistribution emails.
The lawyer said IT was gathering the files on December 17 and now expected to provide a further response by January 14.
By that time, council will have already debated and voted on the district maps proposed by Democratic and Republican members, and candidates will have made good progress in the 2022 county election.
The deputy county attorney did not respond when asked when IT started collating the redistricting emails requested by The Tribune.
Following:St. Joseph County Commissioners Approve Controversial Electoral Maps
Council President Rafael Morton, a Democrat, said on Monday that he values public access to government documents, but had no comment on why the public should wait so long for documents.
“I agree with the concept that the public has a right to know. It’s a public record, ”Morton said. “I believe in the process and have no control over the IT and its response. “
Chairman of Commissioners Andy Kostielney, a Republican, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Indiana law does not provide a specific time frame within which public bodies must respond to registration requests. The law only says that a government agency must respond within a “reasonable” time.
Whether the timing of an agency’s response is “reasonable” is highly subjective.
Deputy County District Attorney Brandie Ecker said the Tribune’s Oct. 8 request, along with a subsequent Nov. 15 request, was “quite extensive” and would require “a significant investment of time” to put together.
Following:St. Joseph County Democrats present 3 ’emergency’ cards
The county is required to redraw electoral maps every 10 years, based on population changes. This year, Republican commissioners had more power due to a recent change in state law that allows commissioners to draw their own maps without the approval of the council, the legislative body.
Commissioners also have more control over council maps, as three council districts must be drawn in each of the three commissioner districts.
The districts proposed by GOP council members are in line with new commissioner maps and could give Republicans a chance to break the veto-proof Democratic majority of the council.
Council Democrats, meanwhile, have proposed three “emergency” cards depending on whether or not a legal challenge against the GOP commissioner’s cards is successful.