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Senate backs open meetings on redistricting

Senate backs open meetings on redistricting

March 7th, 2012 by Chris Blank, the Associated Press in News

Voters would be asked whether to mandate public meetings for panels responsible for redrawing Missouri's legislative districts under a measure endorsed Tuesday by the state Senate.

The proposed constitutional amendment would require the state commissions responsible for redrawing state legislative districts meet in public sessions and be subject to Missouri's open records requirements. It comes after a special judicial panel declared it was not subject to the Sunshine Law and deliberated in secret last year while drawing new boundaries for the state House and Senate.

Senators said more transparency in the state Legislature redistricting process could lead to better maps. The measure needs another round of approval before moving to the state House. If approved by lawmakers, the proposed constitutional amendment could appear on the ballot later this year.

State legislative districts are redrawn each decade based on the most recent census. The number of districts does not change, but the boundaries are adjusted to account for population shifts. Commissions with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats are responsible for drawing new maps for the 163-member House and 34-member Senate. If the commissions cannot reach agreement, a special panel of appellate judges takes over.

Because the bipartisan commissions did agree last year, the appellate panel took over. The judges met and deliberated in secret about redistricting proposals after accepting public testimony for one day in October.

The judicial panel said it did not believe it was required to follow state requirements for posting notices of its meetings and conducting most discussions in public sessions. A legal adviser for the panel said last month the Missouri Constitution allows state redistricting panels to hold closed meetings as frequently as desired.

The judicial panel first released new maps Nov. 30, but it created a revised Senate map in December amid concerns about whether some districts violated state constitutional requirements. The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately struck down the Senate districts and was considering a separate lawsuit over new state House districts, which includes an allegation the judicial panel violated open meetings requirements.

A new bipartisan redistricting commission last month reached a tentative agreement over new Senate districts after a more than 13-hour meeting, in which much of the discussion was conducted behind closed doors. The redistricting commission was expected to meet after a 15-day public comment period to give the new map final approval.

Besides requiring all redistricting meetings be open to the public, the proposed constitutional amendment also would expand restrictions on the ability of commission members to serve in the Legislature. Currently, redistricting commissioners cannot serve in the Legislature for four years after approving a new map. That ban would be extended to 10 years and would apply regardless of whether the bipartisan redistricting commission or the panel of appeals court judges ends up drawing the new district boundaries.