Making Sense of Philly’s Council Districts

No squiggly lines, please

Usually around this time of year, City Council—or much of it anyway—is hard at work on its typical summer business: issuing resolutions for things like another round of beer, another layer of sunscreen, and another two-day work week.

But the damnable Feds have conspired to cut short Council’s summer fun this year. Not with any indictments (this time), but with the March 9th release of Pennsylvania census data.

The City Charter requires Council to draw new districts within six months of receiving the decennial census results. That means the new districts are due on September 9th. Council had been slated to come back from its longest-in-the-nation summer recess on the 8th. The deadline isn’t just an empty threat. The charter withholds pay from council members once the redistricting deadline passes if a new plan isn’t already in place. And so Council has been forced to get back to work early.

Today, in City Council chambers, Council will hold the first of three public redistricting hearings (hearings Council President Anna Verna agreed to after intense public pressure from the Committee of 70). Two more are scheduled over the next few weeks.

New districts are desperately needed. It will surprise nobody to hear that Philadelphia’s council districts—particularly the 7th and the 5th—are preposterously gerrymandered beasts that serve no purpose beyond some council member’s will to survive. The 7th resembles a very skinny amoeba because former councilman and former federal prisoner Rick Mariano needed it drawn that way to fend off Latino challengers. The 5th—which is anchored in North Philadelphia—includes a bizarre outgrowth stretching into the Lower Northeast, which was likely designed to siphon off a few Latino voters from Mariano’s district.

A study by the Philadelphia-based policy mapping firm Azavea (which has become a critical asset for reforming local government) found that the 7th district is the most gerrymandered local government district in the nation. The 5th is not far behind.

Redistricting isn’t exactly easy. Ideally, council districts are compact and contiguous. You want them to honor neighborhood boundaries, and avoid artificially depressing the representation of racial groups. But it is doable. You can try it yourself at, a fantastic tool developed by Azavea to encourage public participation in the redistricting.

Still, given the political realities, it is hard to imagine council getting all this done in under a month, unless of course the map stays the same. Which is why at-large Councilman Bill Green has suggested that Council adopt the current map (to satisfy City Charter requirements), and craft a totally new one in 2012, when new council members take office. It’s an intriguing idea, and perhaps the best way to ensure this opportunity isn’t wasted.