By Tim Leeds
Most of the comments at a public hearing Wednesday night about redrawing the boundaries of legislative House districts centered on one of four plans proposed for north-central Montana.
"They've kind of zeroed in on plan 300, both pro and con," Ray Peck, former state representative from Havre and treasurer of the Montana Democratic Party, said after the hearing.
The commission proposed four plans for north-central Montana, with plans 100, 200 and 400 being variations on the same theme. Plan 300, proposed by commission member Joe Lamson of Helena, follows a different theme.
District boundaries are examined and redrawn as needed every 10 years following the U.S. Census, to keep the population evenly divided among 100 House districts, which are then combined to create 50 Senate districts. Montana's population of about 902,000 has to be divided among the 100 House districts, with each district containing 9,022 people, plus or minus 5 percent.
Plan 300 contains some districts stretching long distances east and west. The plan would enable the commission to combine two House districts, each containing American Indian reservations, for a Senate district with a large Native American makeup. That Senate district would stretch from Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation to Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Some people testifying at the hearing supported 300 for that and other reasons, and others opposed it, primarily because of the large size of the House districts it would contain.
Toni Plummer of Rocky Boy said she supports Plan 300 because it gives better representation to Native Americans and to rural eastern Montana. She said after the hearing that people are so spread out in eastern Montana that issues often get isolated and lost or ignored.
"Plan 300 brings them together in a stronger voice, unites rural voices and kind of brings those issues forward," she said.
Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller noted that he has campaigned for a seat on the Montana Public Service Commission in an area about as large as two of the House districts included in Plan 300. The size of the district will not only affect how a legislator can campaign, he said, but it will determine how effectively the legislator can represent constituents. When districts are too large, they also assemble communities with dissimilar interests, he added, and he encouraged the commission to consider keeping communities of similar interests together. Miller ran for the Public Service Commission in 1998, campaigning from Glacier to Dawson counties in the race.
Hill County Republican Party Chairman Brad Lotton also testified that the large area would be a problem. He urged the commission to try to follow county lines as much as possible to reduce the number of counties in a district. Having several different sets of county commissioners to deal with as well as a variety of towns with different interests would make a district difficult to represent, he said.
"Its going to be a lot of extra work for somebody making $9,000 a year," he said.
Several speakers said Plan 300 best represents the interests of Pondera County. Ted Kronebush of Conrad said the city of Conrad has been divided among two or three districts since 1973, and Plan 300 not only puts it in one district but best keeps Pondera County united in one district.
State Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, said he has concerns about Plan 300 because of the large districts it contains and because of the way it splits Havre. Plan 300 divides Havre east and west, and Wolery said he prefers the historical version dividing Havre more north and south.
State Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, said he supports Plan 300 for that very reason. Dividing Havre into east and west gives both districts a better cross-section of voters, he said.
Democrat Jonathan Windy Boy of Rocky Boy, who has announced his candidacy in House District 92, said the Chippewa Cree Tribe supports plan 300. Windy Boy also chairs the Montana/Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, and said the council supports Plan 300. He said Plan 300 should be amended to include the city of Harlem in the district with Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
Liberty County Commissioner Ed Diemert said he supports Plan 300 because the other plans group his county with Hill County. He said Havre residents would make up half of the district if that were approved.
Since Liberty County is mostly rural and agricultural, Diemert said, he would prefer a district made up mostly of rural people. Plan 300 best meets that desire and would best represent Liberty County, he said.
Janine Pease Pretty On Top of Lodge Grass, the presiding officer of the commission, said the commission will accept written comment for three weeks following the hearing. She invited anyone who hasn't commented, and those who have testified, to submit written comments.
"In some cases a written statement lets us pinpoint your criticism or your cheerleading in a more precise way," she said.
The commission asked that comments be directed toward specific plans proposed, although it also welcomed general comments.
The Districting and Apportionment Commission can be contacted at: Legislative Services Division, PO BOX 201706, Helena MT 59620-1706; Phone: (406)444-3064; Fax: (406) 444-3036; e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All correspondence will be copied and mailed to all of the commissioners.