Akron -- A fight over Summit County Council representative districts may still end up at the polls this November, even after County Council on July 20 passed a resolution opposing a petition-drive that would ask voters to redraw Council's eight representative districts in 2016.
Council is also considering its own ballot initiative for November to establish an independent districting commission in 2020. This commission would be composed of five electors, not more than three of which would be members of the same political party and none of whom would be public office holders or officers of a political party. It is scheduled for further discussion July 27.
If either of two issues make it to the ballot and are approved by voters, a Council Districting Commission would be established to take that authority from Summit County Council. Under current law, County Council is responsible for reviewing districts after each census.
A group calling itself Fair Districts For Summit County hopes to ask voters in November if they want to redraw county districts according to the group's plan in 2016 and create a bipartisan, independent districting commission to oversee future redistricting plans.
In a 10-1 partisan vote, County Council on July 20 voted to oppose the petition.
Gloria Rodgers, Council's sole Republican and a member of the Fair Districts group, voted in favor of the plan, saying the present system has resulted in the "most gerrymandered county in the state" due to the long-standing Democratic majority on Council.
"It's time to be fair to everyone and try to the best of our ability to take the party politics out of it," she told Record Publishing Co. July 23.
The Fair Districts group is headed by former County Council representative Bill Roemer, who said he had proposed a similar plan in 2011 to County Council, before he lost his bid for reelection.
Roemer said the plan is supported by the Summit County Republican Party, but called his group a "non-partisan" effort to "keep communities together."
Roemer said the group must collect 11,000 signatures by Aug. 5 to get its measure on the Nov. 3 ballot. Members of the group's board of directors include Rodgers, former Sagamore Hills Trustee Rose Mary Snell, Northfield Center Trustee Rich Reville, Barberton resident Chris Long and New Franklin city Councilman Gust Kalapodis.
Roemer said he decided to pursue the redistricting plan because "I've got the time; I've got the energy; I've got the ability to look at this and say, 'We can do better than what we're doing for the community.'"
For example, he said, Bath Township is presently split into two districts, and the city of Akron is split among six. Under the Fair Districts plan, Bath Township would be included in its entirety in District 1 and Akron would be split into three districts, with no parts of surrounding communities included.
However, Tallmadge Mayor David Kline told County Council July 20 the Fair Districts plan to combine Tallmadge and Cuyahoga Falls into a single district would hurt his city's representation based on sheer numbers.
"The representation of Tallmadge alone, I think would be lost," said Kline. "I'm in favor of postponing this until the 2020 census track."
Another flaw, Democratic members of County Council say, is that the Fair Districts plan for Akron would dilute minority representation on Council.
District 5 Representative Tamela Lee, Council's only African American member, said her district has traditionally been safe for African American representation. Her predecessor on Council was Cazzell Smith, another African American, who resigned in 2011 after 20 years service to take another government job.
Lee said the Fair Districts plan divides Akron's poorest, majority black neighborhoods.
"I think this outlines the underlying point that we've been trying to make, that this is racial and it is Republican," Lee said. "It's unconscionable as all the things we see going on in this country that have escalated the racial division to levels we have not seen since 1960."
But the Fair Districts group says their plan ensures at least two of the three Akron districts would have about 45 percent minority representation.
"It's going to give the minorities in Akron a chance for more representation on Summit County Council," Rodgers said.
Sandra Kurtz, vice president of Council, disputed that claim, stating that District 5 is presently 50 percent African American and that any lower percentage would practically guarantee white representatives would gain office.
Kurtz also said the Council majority feels the Fair Districts plan is a partisan bid to force sitting Democratic councilmembers to run against each other in their next primary election, thus opening up their seats to Republican competitors.
Under the Fair Districts plan, Lee and District 4 Representative Frank Communale would be forced to run against each other, as would District 2 Representative John Schmidt and District 6 Representative Jerry Feeman.
Kurtz said the situation would "take away representation that voters have already chosen."
Rodgers said that argument is disingenuous.
"It's still going to remain a Democratic county -- a Republican may pick up a district, but we've had two Republicans on Council before," she said.
Democratic members of County Council also accused Fair Districts of misleading voters during its petition drive by claiming to be "nonpartisan" and of being associated with Fair Districts for Ohio, a state-level bipartisan effort to reduce gerrymandering of state Senate and representative districts.
And former State Rep. Vernon Sykes, a member of Fair Districts for Ohio, told County Council July 20 that Roemer's plan is "totally contrary" to the state effort, according to a release from County Council.
"It is nothing but a misrepresentation of the facts to say that what's being proposed in this petition is something that I would support," Sykes said in the release.
Roemer said he is not aware of any misleading statements having been made by members of his group.
However, he did say he approves of Council's exploring the idea of an independent districting commisson.
"At least they agree with a portion of what I'm doing," he said.
Eric Marotta: 330-541-9433