How to divide Billings’ population into five equal groups?
That’s a challenge the City Council and staff have been grappling with for a couple of months. Their efforts were publicized in a Billings Gazette report on Jan. 27, and their plans are scheduled to be discussed at a regular council meeting on Feb. 25.
The council’s redistricting job isn’t easy, but it’s much less complex than the Montana Redistricting and Apportionment Commission’s task. Delineating city wards is a nonpartisan endeavor.
Although different neighborhoods sometimes have different needs, Billings residents have more in common than not.
The last time Billings redrew all its ward boundaries was in 2005 in response to the 2000 U.S. Census. Within a few months, the ACLU sued the city on behalf of residents of Wards 2 and 3, which had 3 percent and 9 percent more residents than the ideal size. The other three wards had fewer residents than ideal.
The council responded by revising boundaries to equalize ward populations, and the lawsuit was settled.
This time, the city is being much more proactive. The redistricting is happening two years sooner — just three years after the 2010 census was taken.
According to the census, the five wards would ideally have a population of 20,800. Importantly, the preferred plan the council is considering would create five wards, each within 3 percentage points of ideal.
Because growth has occurred unevenly, ward boundaries must change. Ward 2 has a population of 24,845, so the city is proposing to move the Heights area south of Hilltop Road, including Alkali Creek into Ward 1. Rehberg Ranch Estates would move from Ward 2 to Ward 5. Briarwood would move from Ward 1 to Ward 3. Wards 3 and 4, and, possibly, Ward 5, would be redrawn to be more compact north to south districts. Presently, they stretch further east-west.
Each of the five wards will elect one council member this fall. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Ronquillo and Ward 4 Councilman Ed Ulledalen cannot seek re-election because of term limits. Angela Cimmino in Ward 2, Rich McFadden in Ward 3 and Mark Astle in Ward 5 are in their first terms and may seek a second term under the city charter.
All city voters will get to choose the mayor. Tom Hanel’s first term is up at year’s end and he is eligible to run for a second.
We encourage Gazette readers to check out maps of the proposed new ward boundaries at a link with this Gazette opinion at billingsgazette.com.
Does the new configuration make sense to you? Let your council members know what you think. At the most recent council meeting on redistricting, not all members preferred the same plan.
We ask Billings citizens to keep in mind that the principle of one person, one vote compels the city to put equality above geography.
Then the most important part of the election process is choosing bright, hard-working, civic-minded council members. Montana’s largest city needs councilmen and women who will represent their wards well and make wise decisions for the whole city.
As Councilman Denis Pitman noted recently: “Each of our wards is already bigger than most of the cities in our state.”