Fourth try: Mediators to help Ohio Redistricting Commission as it again draws new maps

The Ohio Redistricting Commission will get some independent help as the members work this week on creating a fourth set of state legislative district maps with just days remaining until a court-imposed deadline.

The commission members also debated Tuesday how much of the actual map drawing — most of which has occurred behind closed doors — would take place in public this week.

Mediators from the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals will help the Ohio Redistricting Commission settle on fourth versions of state House and Senate maps.

Commissioners accepted the offer Tuesday for the “loan” of two mediators from the court: Chief Circuit Mediator Cathy Geyer and Staff Mediator Scott Coburn. They will work with the seven commission members, legislative staff from both parties, and hired map-drawing experts to meet a March 28 deadline set by the Ohio Supreme Court.

After the commission, which consists of five Republicans and two Democrats, passed three sets of Republican-drawn maps without any Democratic support, the acceptance of court mediators included a sign that the need for bipartisan agreement may have sunk in at last: Auditor Keith Faber, a Republican, moved to accept the mediators’ services, and was seconded by House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington. The motion was accepted unanimously.

The state Supreme Court, in a series of 4-3 rulings, has thrown out three previous sets of maps as gerrymandered to unfairly favor Republicans.

Geyer said the mediators’ goal is not to render judgment or impose a solution but to “manage the process.”

Commission co-chair state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, asked how much the mediators will charge. Nothing, Geyer replied.

“We’re on loan from the court. We’re the best bargain you have,” she said to laughter from commissioners.

Over the weekend Republicans and Democrats each proposed hiring outside experts to assist legislative staff in map-drawing. Republicans are bringing in Douglas Johnson, president of Ashland Demographics Corp., while Democrats want Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida. Ultimately both were agreed to, with their compensation capped at $49,000 each. Johnson and McDonald are due to start work Wednesday, alongside hired mapmakers and legislative staff from each political party.

A remaining question is how much of the map-drawing process will be public. Though the redistricting commission held several public forums last summer, and has held open meetings to vote map proposals up or down, the negotiations and line-drawing have all occurred behind closed doors — with Democrats frequently complaining they were frozen out of the process, presented with Republican-drawn maps only an hour or two before they were expected to vote.

On Tuesday, Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, acknowledged that the Supreme Court has ordered this set of maps to be drafted in public. And House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, asked the mediators how much of the discussion could remain confidential.

“Obviously one of the concerns in this whole process is that anytime somebody says something to somebody else, it ends up in litigation,” he said.

Geyer said open-meetings laws will apply to the group deliberations, but not to individual conversations on specific points.

Should there be subsequent litigation, commissioners will have the privilege of preventing disclosure of those private discussions, she said. That still would not constrain the individual participants from talking to other people or posting on social media about the process, Geyer said.

Commissioners plan to meet again Wednesday evening, hours after Gov. Mike DeWine – who sits on the commission – delivers his annual State of the State address; and every day through the Monday deadline.

Although Ohio House and Senate district lines remain uncertain, the partisan primary for those seats is still officially scheduled for May 3. The commission’s Democratic members, Russo and Sykes, have asked the Ohio Supreme Court to order the primary moved to June 28. But absent a court ruling, Cupp indicated Tuesday that there is no current plan to delay the primary, although election officials have said including state legislative races on the May 3 ballot will be practically impossible.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

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