Tempers flared this week during discussion of election re-districting by the Salisbury City Council. Both sides have clear philosophies about whether the city should switch from a two district to a five district system. A public hearing on the issue will be forthcoming, though at this time switching to a five district layout is favored by a majority of the council.
Mayor Jim Ireton presented the council with a proposed re-drawn election district map Monday that would divide Salisbury’s current two zones into five smaller pieces. The council split passionately on the issue and at several points Council President Jake Day had to remind the body to maintain decorum.
Three members of the five person council were quick to voice their support of adding districts with the most common reasoning being that five districts would guarantee a council drawn from every corner of the city and an even voting system.
“It’s the right direction. It’s equal representation throughout the city,” said councilmember Shanie Shields.
Sticking to a two district system when smaller cities than Salisbury have several districts seems “idiotic,” in Shield’s opinion. Councilmember Terry Cohen, a supporter of the current two district layout, took offense at the remark and its implications.
Things became even more heated when councilmember Tim Spies requested data on how many rental properties would be in each of the proposed five districts. His theory being that there is at least one powerful organization in the city that has contributed funding to campaigns in the past and owns a number of rental properties. They aren’t above trying to unduly influence tenants or buy votes, according to Spies, and breaking the city into five districts would make bought votes much more impactful depending on the density of the properties he believes they might affect.
“When you slice the pie into six sections or five sections it’s easier to pick the whole thing up,” he said.
The idea of an organization buying council seats and intimidating renters’ votes had a bit of a conspiracy ring to some on the council.
“This just took a really odd turn,” said a clearly befuddled Day.
Spies acknowledged this but asserted that there was plenty of fact and history to back his fears. Shields moved to interject a comment only to be shut down be Spies.
“I didn’t ask you to say anything, to tell the truth. I still have the floor,” he said, prompting an outcry and forcing Day to attempt to establish decorum again repeatedly.
The dust settled but tempers remained thin. Day and councilmember Laura Mitchell both endorsed the change to a five district system while Cohen and Spies remained in defense of the current two districts. Like Shields, Day and Mitchell felt that a five district system would better represent all corners of the city while the two district layout allowed too much clumping where councilmembers might only be concentrated in one or two parts of Salisbury.
“I have trouble supporting a plan that doesn’t include more diverse and diffuse representation,” said Day.
But one doesn’t need to live within an area to represent it fully and effectively, according to Cohen.
“I don’t just represent where I live. I get calls from all over the city, including the other district,” she told Day.
He didn’t dispute the point but did reiterate his opinion that a council composed of members from across the city would bring a unique insight into each neighborhood and their issues to the table. It should also help residents feel more personally represented as it’s easier to live across the street from someone on the council than across the city.
Cohen again took up the banner for a two district system, stating that people already must feel well represented as the public hearings on a new district system that were held not long ago drew next to no attendance, indicating no real issues with the status quo.
“We held several public hearing opportunities out in the community. They were, I would say, sparsely attended even though they were held in every quadrant of the city,” she said. “And that told me that there was not an overwhelming bandwagon for splitting the city up into that many districts.”
There are other considerations that the council will look at including how expanding the number of districts will impact the cost of elections. While more districts means more polling spots and workers it could also disperse candidates across the city enough that primaries might not be necessary.
It is an important issue for the city, said Day in closing, but one which he finds frustrating as he believes there are other much higher priorities on the city’s list. The struggle to agree on simple re-districting is, in his words, disappointing.
Day motioned that the city have another public hearing to discuss the issue further and the idea was supported by majority consensus and will be held this spring.