SALISBURY — A plan to split Salisbury into five voting districts advanced out of work session this week despite opposition from a minority of the City Council.
Opponents argued that the city is attempting to fix what isn’t broken, while supporters feel that Salisbury’s current two-district system isn’t a fair representation of all of the area’s diverse neighborhoods.
Debate has been lively about re-districting in Salisbury for better than a year and continued hot this week. One of the major points of contention for some on the council is how the five-district system proposed by the administration would slice the city into smaller pieces. This would give individual votes more power, which Councilman Tim Spies noted carries both benefits and risks.
Council seats for each district under the proposed plan would have slimmer voting margins. This could lead to certain groups having disproportionate influence, argued Spies. Property renters, university students and others who might not be as invested in their neighborhoods for the long run could swing elections, he worried.
“The only reason that I asked about rentals was the concept of transient people in the city, those who come here for six months or four months or five months,” Spies said, “and then leave. Yet the regulations say that a person only has to be here for 30 days to be able to vote in city elections, to register for city elections and then vote.”
Some people have “little or no connection to the city,” he added, but still vote and would have a much higher impact on the election with five districts instead of the current two.
“And yet we have seen students get riled up and led by the nose to the polls and give us some rather skewed voting results,” Spies said.
There was some pushback against Spies’ concerns from some of his fellow councilmembers who felt that a five-district layout would be more representative of the will of the city, not less.
“I don’t have concern about people gaming the system, or however you want to frame that, coming in, staying 30 days so they can register, voting and then leaving,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “It’s a pretty expensive proposition to move, and I don’t think a lot of our students have that luxury. A lot of people who are renting don’t have that luxury.”
Mitchell also underlined that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell which renters or students are only temporary citizens and which plan on calling Salisbury home for years. Even when renters move they may only be relocating down the block or across the street.
People who rent property do make up a large percentage of Salisbury’s population but they aren’t out to rig the council, promised Councilwoman Shanie Shields. The city wants to be as welcoming as possible, she said, since today’s students might be tomorrow’s residents or business owners.
“We’re trying to encourage our young people to stay in our community, even the ones who are not from here. So if we’re going to worry about how they vote, to me, that would discourage them even more to be in this town,” said Shields.
Spies replied that he wasn’t suggesting anyone block anyone else’s votes, only that there is a “long-standing weirdness” with the city’s voting situation that he was attempting to frame. Even without the issue of temporary residents having too much voting power, Spies questioned why the current two-district layout needed to be fixed since it didn’t appear to be faulty. If changes need to be made to square up with new codes, District 1 could be tweaked enough to come in line, suggested Spies.
Councilwoman Terry Cohen also felt that the district situation is good as is and was troubled by the smaller voting margins the new plan would impart and the possible feelings of division among neighborhoods.
But Cohen and Spies’ reservations weren’t enough to halt the process. The rest of the council voted to move the administration’s plan to an upcoming legislative session. After being reviewed in several work sessions, Monday’s vote represents a significant amount of momentum.
“We’ve discussed it at length before but we’re at a critical mass at this point,” said Tom Stevenson, city administrator, “where if the council is going to consider making a change to the charter we need to do it soon so that the city attorney can get the charter change in place and then advance that to the court for consideration.”
The expectation is that it will take about a year to get the plan vetted through the court system and polished, and City Attorney Mark Tilghman anticipates that he will need specialized legal help during the process. There was confusion this week as to why the proposal hasn’t been brought before the courts in any of the previous months of discussions.
Some on the council when re-districting first came up, like Spies, were under the impression that direction had been given to check the legality of the administration’s proposal. However, Tilghman felt no clear indication to move forward and was instead waiting for the council to form a clear consensus.
Following Monday’s vote, the five-district model will be examined by the courts to make sure it meshes with state and federal guidelines on issues like minority representation.