The Billings City Council is moving ahead with plans to redraw council ward boundaries to equalize representation for city residents.
As an incidental benefit, the redistricting option favored by the City Council gives a more logical, compact shape to some of the sprawling, hodgepodge wards.
Given the population of the city, the target population for each of the city's five wards would be 20,800. Under the current ward boundaries, there are wide deviations from that target.
The deviation is most pronounced in the Heights, which encompasses Ward 2, where the population is 24,845 -- 19.45 percent above the target. By contrast, Ward 3 has a population of just 17,795, 14.45 percent below the target.
Because of the "one man, one vote" requirement in the U.S. Constitution, voting districts are supposed to be as nearly equal in population as possible. Bruce McCandless, the assistant city administrator, said the courts have generally held that population deviations in a range of 10 percent -- either plus or minus 5 percent off the target population -- meet constitutional standards.
After a couple of months of work by city staff and the City Council, an ordinance codifying a redistricting plan is scheduled to be considered on first reading by the council on Feb. 25.
The most noticeable change would affect the Heights, which has been a single ward for years. Under the preferred plan, Ward 1 would be expanded to take in the southern portion of the Heights -- basically everything south of Hilltop road, including Alkali Creek.
Ward 1 would then lose Briarwood and much of southwest Billings to Ward 3, which covers most of central Billings. That would make Ward 3 much more compact, mostly confined between Fifth and 24th streets west.
Ward 3 now stretches all the way from Division Street to 48th Street West, zigzagging westward along the southern border of Ward 5.
Ward 2 would also lose the Rehberg Estates subdivision, west of the airport, to Ward 4. Except for that change, Ward 4 wouldn't change much at all except for losing a few other small chunks of real estate to Wards 3 and 5.
Ward 4 would remain by far the most elongated ward, running all the way from North 27th Street to just east of 69th Street West.
At a work session earlier this week, several council members said they favored an earlier redistricting plan -- the one known as Plan D -- mainly because it expanded Ward 3 north to the Rims, making Ward 4 more of a West End district.
Ward 4 Councilman Ed Ulledalen said he liked Plan E, the now-preferred plan, because there is a community of interest in the ward, since most of the neighborhoods north of Colton Boulevard and under the Rims share similar characteristics.
Ward 2 Councilman Denis Pitman, however, said council members in Billings shouldn't worry about having to represent "diverse" groups of people.
"Each of our wards are already bigger than most of the cities in our state," he said.
Plan D would have resulted in two council people -- Jani McCall in Ward 4 and Becky Bird in Ward 3 -- living outside their wards. Even so, McCall said she also preferred that plan.
McCandless, who led the staff effort to redraw ward boundaries, said nothing in state or local law mandates when ward boundaries have to be changed. But if population deviations get too far out of balance, citizens could sue, claiming their constitutional right to equal representation was being violated.
Just such a lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several Billings residents, prompted the last redistricting, which was drawn up in 2004 and took effect during the city election of 2005.
"The 'one man, one vote' concept is really what's driving this," McCandless said.
At least one person wishes the council would wait until 2014 to redraw ward boundaries.
Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford said it would be much easier for his office to make the changes next year, in conjunction with changes that will be made to state legislative districts.
Montana Votes, the statewide data base that is used to redraw voting districts, does not have the capability to import data electronically, Rutherford said.
"I have to literally go street by street and adjust boundaries by hand," he said.
After talking with elections administrators in other Montana cities, Rutherford said, he estimates he'll need five weeks to redraw the districts, meaning his office won't be able to use Montana Votes for any other work during that time.
Making things worse is that he has a lot of other chores to get done, including running a School District 2 election this spring and sending out 58,000 absentee voter renewal forms.
"It's kind of a monumental task," he said.
McCandless said the City Council considered Rutherford's concerns but decided to go ahead now so the changes are in place before council elections next fall. He said Rutherford doesn't need to make any of the ward changes until after the school election, which should give him plenty of time.
More than anything, the council wanted to get redistricting done before someone sued the city again.
Knowing what it knows about the population discrepancies, the council wouldn't have much chance in court if somebody sued, McCandless said.
"I don't think the council wants to be in that position," he said.
One thing that will lessen Rutherford's troubles is that the city primary election is in September, and more often than not there are too few council candidates to trigger a primary anyway, McCandless said.
The plan is for the council to vote on the redistricting ordinance on Feb. 25, then on second reading on March 11. The ordinance would take effect 30 days after that, well before April 25, when candidates can start filing for City Council elections.