Town preps for council redistricting

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Cumberland officials are considering changing to three town council districts and having two members serve at large.

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CUMBERLAND – Officials are preparing to redraw Cumberland’s town council districts to balance a rise in population reflected in the recent census.

Leaders are leaning toward an outcome that would take the town from five council districts to three, with two at-large members.

Cumberland is currently made up of five town council districts, but its population change reflected in the 2020 census is prompting a need to redraw the lines and achieve a better balance.  Submitted image

The town, which straddles the Hancock-Marion County line, had a population of 5,169 in 2010. Cumberland’s 2020 tally came in at 5,954, an increase of 785, or 15%.

Ben Lipps, Cumberland town manager, said the growth over that decade has resulted in lopsided populations among the areas elected officials represent.

“We are – from the last census to this census – very heavily unbalanced,” Lipps said.

Leaders have several objectives as they set out to re-balance, including striving for town council districts that are compact, contiguous, as equal in population as possible and that avoid discrimination.

With five districts under the town’s 2020 resident count, each area would have an ideal population of 1,191.

“We’re an odd-shaped town if you look at us,” Lipps said. “Very different than a lot of communities. We’re not as rounded out. That’s part of the reason redistricting was so difficult.”

Officials hired Veridus Group, an Indianapolis firm that provides community development services, to help with the redistricting. The firm developed multiple scenarios, including those resulting in five districts and others proposing three districts with two at-large members.

Splitting Cumberland’s population as of 2020 as equally as possible into three districts would result in each having almost 1,985 residents.

Cumberland Town Council members favor one of the three-district options Veridus Group suggested because of its low deviation from an ideal district size of smallest and largest population districts – a little over 4%.

The way Cumberland’s current council districts are drawn with the town’s 2020 population results in a deviation of over 85%.

The goal is to get as close to 0% as possible.

“That’s the mission of the council – one person, one vote,” Lipps said.

Council members like the option for other reasons as well.

“I’ve never been a super strong proponent of at-large, but … it does do the best job of keeping neighborhoods together,” council member Breck Terheide said at a council meeting earlier this month.

Fellow council member Mike Wolski agreed.

“This here makes more sense to make it work for the town,” he said. “The at-large — it’s time I think that we consider that as a town.”

Jack Woods, a project analyst with Veridus Group, noted one of the five-district options balances population well, but splits up neighborhoods.

Another five-district option keeps neighborhoods mostly intact, but results in a higher deviation.

Lipps pointed out Cumberland saw significant population growth in the town’s northernmost council district, District 5.

“We had one neighborhood that’s pretty densely populated completely build over the last 10 years,” he added.

Another rise was in the town’s easternmost district, District 2.

Both districts are in Hancock County, and their spikes contributed to Cumberland going from having most of its population in Marion County to Hancock County between the 2010 and 2020 censuses.

Town council members demanded much from Veridus Group and the redistricting process, Lipps said.

“They put them through the wringer because they really didn’t want to split any neighborhoods between districts, but in order to get as close to 0% (deviation) as possible, there’s still a little bit of neighborhood split,” he said.

A final decision on the redistricting will require two council votes and a public hearing, all of which have yet to be set.

If officials go with a three-district, two at-large option, they’ll also determine whether to stagger council members’ terms.

Officials noted there are pros and cons to both. No stagger could result in five new inexperienced election winners joining the council at the same time. Staggering would remedy that, but would require more elections, which come at an expense to taxpayers.

Dan Taylor, Cumberland town attorney, said he’s never seen all five town council seats contested in his 15 years working for the town.

“With your particular voting history, there might be less of an argument for a stagger than some other places,” he said.

Terheide added that it can be difficult to get voters interested in town elections, and that having all five council members on the ballot at once may improve turnout.

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