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Subcommittee to propose 4 City Council districts with 2 members each

The Rev. Edward Bailey of Bethel AME Church, right, speaks to Home Rule Study Commission City Council Subcommittee Chair Tony Dastra, left, and member Maxine Cook, second from left, during the subcommittee’s meeting at the church on Sunday, June 30, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster city would be divided into four electoral districts, each with two City Council representatives, under draft home rule charter language being developed for the Home Rule Study Commission’s consideration by its City Council Subcommittee.

A ninth representative would be elected at large, and would serve as City Council president.

Chair Tony Dastra and member Maxine Cook presented the subcommittee’s proposed draft of the charter’s Article II (PDF) to an audience of about 20 people who attended the subcommittee’s meeting Sunday afternoon at Bethel AME Church in southeast Lancaster. The subcommittee’s third member, Darlene Byrd, was absent.

The draft would provide for City Council to grow or shrink by establishing a ratio of one council member per 6,000 to 9,000 residents. Within that range, voters would have the power to change the number of City Council members by referendum. The total number of council members would always be odd, to avoid tie votes.

Dastra showed the audience three draft district maps he prepared using the website “Dave’s Redistricting,” which incorporates geographic and census data to allow the drawing and evaluation of electoral districts. All three would divide Lancaster into four districts with populations of about 14,500. While the district populations aren’t exactly equal, they’re close as practical, and the variances are within ranges that courts have accepted, Dastra said.

The “quadrant-esque” City Council district draft map. This is currently the preferred map of the Home Rule Study Commission’s City Council Subcommittee. Click to enlarge. (Source: Home Rule Study Committee City Council Subcommittee)

The “quadrant-esque” map uses the city’s quadrants as a starting point, and makes modest adjustments to their boundaries so they are sufficiently equal in population.

The “cardinal” version is similar, but with more substantial boundary adjustments. The northeast district would shift to pick up the “northwest annex” north of Harrisburg Pike, leading to corresponding “counterclockwise” shifts in the other three districts.

The “annex unity” map would put the city’s northeast and southeast annexes in the same district, shifting the remaining three districts westward.

The subcommittee members favor the district map; the Bethel AME audience appeared to, as well.

The “cardinal” (left) and “annex unity” (right) draft City Council district draft maps. Click images to enlarge. (Source: Home Rule Study Committee City Council Subcommittee)

In basing electoral districts on quadrants, “we’re taking a model that has been in use,” Cook said. Lancaster’s quadrant framework is longstanding and is reflected in its comprehensive plan, its layout of magisterial court districts and the membership of its Planning Commission.

“We’re not doing anything extraordinary,” she said.

Lancaster’s quadrant-based geography dates from the city’s founding. (Source: “Our Future Lancaster” comprehensive plan)

The full commission’s version of Article II currently provides for seven City Council members, all elected at large. For the subcommittees proposal to override that, a majority of the commission would have to vote in favor.

Chair Brian Adams and members Peter Barber, John McGrann and Carl Feldman have hitherto expressed opposition to by-district voting; absent a change of heart, the three subcommittee members would need support from the commission’s remaining two members, Amy Ruffo and Elizabeth Elias.

Dastra expressed optimism that by-district voting would prevail in some form. He told One United Lancaster he plans to present the subcommittee’s work at the commission’s meeting Tuesday evening. (The commission is meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday rather than Thursday due to the July 4 holiday.)

The commission is hoping to complete a draft charter toward the end of this month, to place it up for referendum in November. If city voters approve it, it will take effect next year.

For more information

  • The Home Rule Study Commission’s next meeting is 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 2, at City Hall, 120 N. Duke St. City Council Subcommittee Chair Tony Dastra said he will present his team’s draft article on City Council and the quadrant-based map.
  • The next meeting of the commission’s City Council Subcommittee is 6 p.m. Monday, July 8, at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 440 St. Joseph St. Meetings at venues in Lancaster’s northeast and northwest are in the works as well, Dastra said.
  • The Home Rule Study Commission page on the Lancaster city government website has extensive information, including a schedule of upcoming meetings and links to agendas and minutes.

Home rule: The big picture

Much of the discussion at Bethel AME on Sunday had to do with more general questions about home rule: Why is Lancaster considering it, and how would a home rule charter benefit residents in the southeast and elsewhere?

The initial impetus was financial equity, Dastra said — the idea being that raising more revenue through a higher earned income tax, which a charter would allow, would be fairer to lower-income residents than continued hikes in property taxes or cutting city services.

Making up Lancaster’s projected deficits through property taxes vs. through the earned income tax. Click to enlarge. (Source: PFM)

But home rule also offers an exceptional opportunity to reshape and broaden representation, he said: Creating districts to ensure neighborhood-level representation, lowering the thresholds for citizen initiatives and referendums and so on.

“This gives us a lot of flexibility,” he said. Will it guarantee that elected officials heed their constituents’ wishes and work on their behalf? No, he said, “but it gives you a better fighting chance.”

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Edward Bailey, told Dastra and Cook that the commission has more or less dropped off everyone’s radar since the initial push to create it last spring.

Tony Dastra, at podium, goes over draft home rule charter provisions that would govern City Council, at Bethel AME Church on Sunday, June 30, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

“I am not sure that the public knows what you all are doing,” he said.

As Cook and Dastra noted, the commission’s meetings and those of its subcommittees are all public, and the commission has tried in various ways to get the word out — hosting tables at community events, setting up an Instagram account and posting an introductory YouTube video. Still, they agreed they could do more, and promised to send out emails about the process and upcoming meetings to all city churches.

Commission member Amy Ruffo, who heads the public engagement subcommittee, attended Sunday as an observer. A big outreach push is coming in late July and early August, once the draft charter is completed, she said: Three informational sessions are being planned — two in person, one virtual — to explain the draft to the community and solicit feedback before it is finalized.

Bailey told Cook and Dastra he found their presentation “eye opening” and thanked them for it, even suggesting they run for City Council.

“This is what you need to be doing,” he said. “… This is what we need.”