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Redistricting commission approves raises while running low on funds

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission had a contentious meeting Thursday.
Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission
The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has voted to give itself a raise.

Members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) voted to give themselves a 7% raise Thursday.

Commissioners said the raise was a cost of living adjustment and argued the change was necessary due to rising inflation.

The commission's map drawing work is done. But commission chair Rebecca Szetela told reporters that defending those maps in lawsuits is still taking up much of the commission’s time.

“I wouldn’t say we’re doing nothing. There [have] been some discussions among the commissioners about potentially reducing the salary. That came up as well. And I think, as we enter into more of a latency phase as a commission, if we decide that we — our terms continue, then I think there’s going to be continued discussions about reducing our salary,” Szetela said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

She said the group is seeking a legal opinion for how much longer they should serve.

The motion to increase the salaries passed 8-3, after some opposition.

Commissioner Doug Clark spoke against the motion. “Our workload’s diminishing at this point in time, and I don’t think it’s a prudent thing to do at this point,” he said.

The commission also heard Thursday that it’s facing a projected budget shortfall of a little over $1.2 million — largely due to legal costs.

“Because of this, we are in active conversation with how best to approach the Legislature on requesting these funds,” the group's Executive Director Suann Hammersmith told commissioners.

Hammersmith estimated the commission has around $32,000 left in its budget for the current fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the group is facing multiple active lawsuits. That’s why Hammersmith recommended the commission approve more money for legal contracts with law firms Fink Bressack and BakerHostetler.

The commission did adopt amendments giving each of those firms $250,000.

The state constitutional amendment that created the commission requires the Legislature to fund the legal defense of its maps. But when it comes to raises and other costs, the constitution becomes murky.

But Szetela said the cost-of-living adjustments won’t be the reason the commission asks for more money.

“Any COLA adjustment has been offset by the departure of our general counsel, so, we wouldn’t be going for those reasons. It would be strictly related to then litigation and litigation costs, and that’s established by our budget, which shows exactly where those costs are coming from, and it’s almost entirely litigation and attorneys,” she said.

Thursday's meeting was General counsel Julianne Pastula’s last with the commission after she announced her resignation last month.

The meeting also brought updates from a third-party study the commission contracted from the Glengariff Group to evaluate how it did.

Overall, the commission scored well on seven areas, including partisan fairness, voter input, and transparency.

One area that stood out to Glengariff Group President Richard Czuba was how voters ranked the commission’s handling of communities of interest.

“There was a very statistically difference between Caucasian and African American voters on this one,” Czuba said.

According to the survey, 52.8% of white voters approved the commission’s handling of communities of interest, while only 14.1% disapproved.

By contrast, only 30.7% of Black voters approved while 53.9% disapproved.

“I think it confirms what we know,” Szetela said. “We know from our hearings in the metro Detroit area that [the] African American community in particular was not pleased with some of the maps that we had drawn, and they requested changes.”

The study found 65.5% of voters wanted the state to continue allowing the commission to draw its legislative maps while only 10.1% said no. That includes a majority of each political affiliation.

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