By Ralph Echtinaw
The Gratiot County Apportionment Commission approved a redistricting plan Oct. 11 that puts commissioners Chuck Murphy and Jan Bunting in the same district.
The reconfigured District 2 encompasses St. Louis, Bethany Township and Precinct 2 of Alma. “Jan wants me to run in District 2,” Murphy said via email. “And she wants to move to Wheeler District 4” where she would challenge George Bailey if he seeks reelection next year. Bunting and Bailey didn’t respond to the Sentinel’s request for comment.
The Apportionment Commission comprised County Clerk Angie Thompson, County Prosecutor Keith Kushion, County Treasurer Terri Ball, Gratiot County Democrat Party Chair Christine Freestone and Gratiot County Republican Party Vice Chair Fares Azzam. Freestone lives in Alma; Azzam in St. Louis. Azzam acted as chairman of the Apportionment Commission.
The body met four times for a total of two hours and considered four redistricting plans; two constructed by Thompson and two by Freestone. Thompson’s Plan 8A was approved by a 4-1 vote with Freestone being the sole no vote. The four redistricting maps can be seen on the county web site.
One of Freestone’s plans split St. Louis in two and the other contained six commission districts. Azzam said that splitting St. Louis was a non-starter with everyone else. As for Freestone’s six-district plan, he and Kushion opposed it because tie votes could easily result on such a county commission.
Freestone said two other Michigan counties have an even number of districts but had no additional information about how that came to be and how it was working out.
“My two maps did not fit every state guideline but do so better than the map adopted,” Freestone said via email. (Although Freestone responded promptly to the Sentinel’s initial inquiry and said she would comment further she never did.)
Alma will be represented (in part) by three of the five commissioners when the new districts take effect in 2023, and that’s a good thing according to incumbent Commissioner John Lemmermann. “The committee did a good job, and it reflects the growing importance of Alma in the county,” he said, adding that the new arrangement benefits Alma because three commissioners will have the city’s best interest in mind.
The new map leaves District 3 (comprising Arcada Township, Sumner Township, Emerson Township and Precinct 3 in Alma) without an incumbent already living there. If you live in one of those areas, this is your chance to run without having to challenge an incumbent.
The Apportionment Commission had to follow guidelines while drawing new commission districts. In a five-district plan the population of each district must be within 11.9 percent of 7,663. Population shifts over the last ten years made it necessary to reconfigure the districts to satisfy that requirement. Assembling this puzzle was a frustrating experience, Azzam said, as townships, villages and cities had to be kept intact as much as possible. Alma was already split in the last configuration, so changing the nature of that split was less controversial than any other alternative.
“We first tried to see if the districts we currently have worked out to be within the guidelines,” Thompson said via email. “But District 4 had grown (making a status quo plan unworkable). So we tried next to see if the seven districts we had back in 2001 would work and no; the numbers were still too far apart.”
Thompson said the districts including parts of Alma had to be worked out first “because there is only Pine River Township, Arcada Township and the City of St. Louis to work with to get a district. So you really are limited on the choices you have to get those within the guidelines, unless you start splitting townships and cities differently.”
Thompson’s second plan called for pulling Breckenridge out of Wheeler Township and grouping it with Bethany Township. “No one really did seem to want to do that,” she said.
County Commissioner Sam Smith likes the new arrangement, though he loses Sumner Township and gains Washington and Elba townships. “So for me the plan is okay,” he said via email.
The final meeting grew contentious, as Freestone had several supporters in the gallery and introduced her two plans for the first time. When the final vote was taken to approve Thompson’s Plan 8A, Freestone gave an emphatic “Opposed!” when her turn to vote came. After the vote Freestone’s supporters voiced their disapproval loudly, Azzam said.
“Freestone seemed unhappy that myself and the other three commissioners rejected her plans,” Azzam said via email. “I believe, as the chairman of the committee, that we followed state guidelines closely and responsibly. We were not politically motivated in this process, nor did we consider party affiliation, etc…!!!
“Plan 8A made most sense for our county. However, it does pit two of our Republican commissioners to run against each other in the next election. But we did not take that into consideration as it is not within the state guidelines.
“I”m proud of our committee members who worked very hard for the last two months on the apportionment plans and specifically our county Clerk Angie Thompson. Finally, I’d like to thank Freestone for her effort in presenting her plans as well as Keith Kushion and Terri Ball.”