New York City’s redistricting process might not be on track to produce quite as much chaos and drama as the state’s redistricting saga, but a draft proposal of new City Council districts for 2023 still has some people bent out of shape.
Earlier this week, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams weighed in on the first draft map released by the New York City Districting Commission last month, echoing concerns that other council members and some community groups have raised about the proposal. Those include the reconfiguration of South Brooklyn districts that would split Latino communities in Sunset Park and Red Hook and which could pit sitting Democratic Council Members Justin Brannan and Alexa Avilés against each other next year. Adams also said the draft map would dilute the Black vote in Southeast Queens. “It is critical that new City Council district lines not only keep communities of interest together, but also preserve principles that were established to protect and enfranchise historically marginalized communities of color,” Adams said in the statement.
At the meeting where the first draft map was approved for release, commission members emphasized that the draft map is just that: a draft. Following the second round of public hearings later this month – occurring on Aug. 16, 17, 18, 21 and 22 – the commission will vote on a final plan and submit it to the council. The council can either approve or reject that plan – the latter would trigger another round of hearings – but the final authority to approve the map rests with the commission.
City & State caught up with Dennis Walcott, chair of the Districting Commission, to talk about feedback to the initial draft map and the next steps in the redistricting process.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
The draft map has been out for a few weeks, and you’re about to go into another round of public hearings. Is there anything that the commission is doing in this in-between period, having meetings or discussions at all?
The staff that we have, who are outstanding, are meeting with various council delegations and anyone else who is requesting a meeting. That's been going on since the preliminary draft maps came out. We've been doing a lot of both meetings and informal conversations, and I think really just letting the process unfold naturally.
There’s been a lot of feedback on the maps, but I’m curious if you’ve heard any complaints – or praise – that stood out to you or that you found surprising?
Both, but not surprising. This is New York City, and we're dealing with 630,000 new residents in a city and 51 councilmanic districts. People are going to say, “It's looking good. It's not looking good. They need to make an adjustment here.” That's part of the normal process. I was expecting that, and I think all of us were expecting that. And that's what the second round of hearings is about, to make sure we get even more feedback. One of the things we've been encouraging is for people to participate, whether in person or virtually.
The City Council speaker and some council members have come out against the new configuration of South Brooklyn districts with concerns that they break up a Latino community in Sunset Park and Red Hook. Did those concerns come up during the drafting phase? Do you expect changes will be made to that configuration in the next draft?
People have raised issues not just about that, but just overall. People want a line over a particular area or to be included in a certain community. It’s not relegated solely to one area, it's really been in all five boroughs. And that's part of the normal discussion and process. You’re making recommendations for changes to something that's been in place for 10 years. We expect that type of feedback and we want that feedback. That's the whole goal of making sure we get as much participation as possible from the public, including the elected officials.
Is that also your answer to some of the other concerns that have been raised – that the draft map could dilute the Black vote in Southeast Queens, or that South Asian communities in Southeast Queens continue to be split between districts, and Rochdale Village continues to be split between districts?
Our goal is to hear that type of feedback. Where we need to make adjustments, we’ll take a look at how to do that. It's a very detailed process, putting maps together and districts together that have a variety of variables that are part of that process. That type of feedback is extremely helpful in making a better mapping process and having districts that reflect the changes that have taken place over the last 10 years, and also issues dealing with voting rights and the implications of the Voting Rights Act and how that plays a role, as well as the charter mandate that we have to follow.
The preliminary draft map also keeps three districts completely contained on Staten Island rather than splitting a Staten Island district with Manhattan or Brooklyn – something that was rumored to be considered, in part because of Staten Island’s lower population. Politico reported that Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli, who is from Staten Island, had an outsized influence through his appointees to the commission and may have allied with the mayor’s appointees to support keeping these three Staten Island districts. Was that your impression of what happened?
I don't think there was any type of alignment. I think people voted based on their beliefs and what they heard at different hearings, and also (based on) the analysis that was performed by our experts and by our staff, and the back and forth discussion that took place between all the commission members. In all frankness, after the appointments, I really don’t even know who is the appointee of which elected official. There's been a definite blending and bonding around the commissioners, and people have their strong opinions around issues, but I haven't heard it reflected in our discussions in a partisan way.
With a new set of public hearings coming up, what can you tell New Yorkers about how specifically their input and their public comment is considered and weighed by the commissioners?
Extremely important. Their input is definitely factored into our discussions and our decision making. We have staff who review the materials, the commission members have the opportunity to review both public testimony and also maps that people submitted. So we take that very seriously. As a result of the first round of hearings, for commission members who may not be familiar with a particular borough because they're from another borough and really haven't gotten into the other aspects of the borough they’re not from, it's been an education as well. So we hear what people have to say. That’s why it's called a preliminary draft. There's always going to be feedback and adjustments that will be made.
More information about the next round of public hearings held by the New York City Districting Commission can be found here.