HELENA — The panel charged with redrawing Montana's legislative districts said Wednesday during a stop on its statewide listening tour that public comment will be critical to crafting a fair political map for the state.
The Districting and Apportionment Commission held its fifth meeting Wednesday and has a total of 14 meetings scheduled around the state through the middle of May. It is currently looking at four maps drawn by legislative staff, and one offered by Democrats.
Former Montana Supreme Court justice Jim Regnier is leading the panel. The veteran mediator, appointed by the Supreme Court as the tie-breaking vote between two Democratic and two Republican appointees, said the public comment will weigh heavily into the final decision.
"We view these maps as a starting point," he said of five current proposals. "We expect our product will be a hybrid or something modified."
Ten years ago, Republicans thought Democrats were able to dominate the process and produce legislative districts that favor that party. Democrats have argued the charge is untrue, and have pointed to the GOP's landslide 2010 legislative elections that saw Republicans claim a 68-32 advantage in the state House as proof the current map does not guarantee victory for Democrats.
Conservative leaders, including former congressman and current Republican candidate for governor Rick Hill, asked the commission Wednesday to keep partisanship out of the process.
Hill said he thinks districts that cut across multiple counties with seemingly little regard for keeping communities together are done for partisan reasons. He urged the panel to set those interests aside and consider the interests of local residents.
"I am not here to support one plan or another, I am here to ask you to set aside partisanship," he told the panel at a Wednesday evening hearing.
Conservative and rural residents criticized plan offered by Democrats on the panel as treating rural residents unfairly.
Several attendees from Jefferson County, which stretches from near Helena to Butte, argued some of the proposed plans unfairly attach them to districts in those cities in a way that diminishes their influence in those elections. They argued such plans place more legislative districts under the control of city politics.
Democrats, some city residents and others told the panel that the plan authored by the Democrats on the panel does the best job of keeping key communities intact.
Joe Lamson, a Democratic appointee to the panel, said the plan he has put forward also does a better job of incorporating all of the legal requirements of a re-districting plan along with stated goals of keeping population variances to a minimum.
"It invariably happens that there are changes. There always are. There have been lots of good suggestions already," Lamson said. "What's been encouraging has been the tone of these hearings, very civil and constructive. When you have to do 14 of them that is much appreciated."
Jon Bennion, the government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce and a Republican appointee, said he expects Regnier will force a compromise where no one gets everything they want but everyone "gets a fair shake."
"I am very confident that this cycle will be very much different than last cycle, and I think the credit for that goes to the chairman in really trying to be that independent and neutral mediator that the Constitution envisions," Bennion said.
The five member panel is appointed every 10 years using the latest population data from the U.S. Census. The commission will hash out a final plan during a weeklong meeting in August. The process must be completed by early 2013.