Wednesday, July 6, 2011

‘Keep us intact’

Blaine County residents fight back against potential split


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

State redistricting commissioners said during a public hearing Thursday that changes in the boundaries of electoral districts might require splitting Blaine County, a suggestion that was met with vehement objection by county residents.

"None of us want to split any county," said Commission Co-Chair Evan Frasure. "It's troubling to us as well."

However, Frasure said, uneven growth throughout much of the state will require a shift in district boundaries. Idaho law requires the state to have 30 to 35 districts of roughly equal population. As a result of the 2010 census, districts' populations need to be between 42,549 and 47,027.

District 25, which includes Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Lincoln counties, has a population of 43,165, well within the range. But population growth in other areas of the state, especially Ada and Canyon counties, could require a re-shuffle that could result in the district's losing part of one county and gaining another.

Frasure said other likely candidates for a district change include Camas, Gooding, Minidoka, Custer and Jerome counties, any of which could either be split from or joined to District 25.

"There's a pretty good chance we're going to have to shift," Frasure said, adding that the two most likely scenarios are adding Custer County to District 25 or splitting Blaine County among two separate districts.

Dale Ewerson, Region V representative for the Idaho Republican Party, said he recommended splitting Blaine County into eastern and western sections. Ewerson said Carey and Picabo should join District 26, Jerome and Minidoka counties, while the rest of Blaine County would be annexed into District 35, Custer, Butte and Lemhi counties.

The recommendation is based on the agriculture-centric economies of much of the current district, Ewerson said.

"To me, agriculture is predominant as a community of interest," he said.

Residents of the county, however, protested a potential split.

"Keep us intact," said Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, during the hearing. "We're holding our own. It's been much easier because we're not fragmented."

Several residents said they felt Carey was different from the rest of Blaine County, but that was all the more reason to keep the county intact.

"My mouth dropped when [Ewerson] said we might lose Carey," said Susan McBryant, former mayor of Hailey. "Carey represents a really key part of Blaine County," she said, citing the town's "cowboy culture."

"To cut away any one city would weaken the others," McBryant said. "We rely on each other for economic vitality."

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said keeping all counties intact is the best scenario.

"I just feel like we can better represent the constituents," she said. "This district has benefited by having the entire four counties."

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Response was slightly more favorable when it came to testimony regarding adding Custer County to District 25. Those in favor compared the tourism and recreation-based economies of Blaine and Custer counties. Julie Dahlgren of Ketchum sent a written statement that said Custer is the location of many second homes of Blaine County residents, and the two counties exchange recreationists.

"You see many 7C [license] plates in 5B territory," she said, adding that District 25 without Blaine County would be agriculture-based, not tourism-based.

Janie Davidson of Ketchum said the two counties have a shared history and shared conservation interests that are not shared by Gooding, Jerome and Camas to the same extent.

Others expressed concerns that adding Custer would make the district too large to manage.

"Even now, it's four hours from here to Salmon," Stennett said, and snow during the winter months or road construction can make that drive even longer.

"The rural nature of our state makes these districts awful big," Jaquet agreed.

Another stated concern is that Blaine County residents share more interests with the Magic Valley and counties to the south rather than the more northern counties. Jaquet said the Wood River Valley depends on services that Twin Falls provides.

"All of our communities of interest are south. This is a pattern that has been established," she said.

County Commissioner Larry Schoen pointed out that Blaine County is linked to southern counties in agencies such as the Southern Idaho Solid Waste District, South Central Public Health District, the Magic Valley Region of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Twin Falls District of the BLM.

"We're not involved in any way in any of those regional governance organizations with those [northern] counties," Schoen said.

Stennett said she doubted that Custer County residents would want to be included in a district with Blaine.

"I think it's a lovely county, but they don't really feel like this is where they are embraced," she said, adding that Custer County residents tend to use Idaho Falls, not Twin Falls, as an urban center.

Stennett recommended adding part of Jerome County to the district if necessary.

"Their community probably feels a little more like Gooding. That might work, but I hope they would like that too," she said.

Frasure said the commission is on track to submit a proposal to the secretary of state by July 27. However, that may not be the end of the story, said redistricting Commissioner George Moses.

In 2001, a proposed redistricting plan would have split Blaine County for representation, dividing Ketchum, Sun Valley and Carey from Hailey, Bellevue and Picabo. The proposal was eventually overturned by the Idaho Supreme Court, which ruled that Blaine County was a "community of interest" that should remain intact.

Moses said 85 percent of all redistricting plans in the nation end in litigation, but the commission's goal is to avoid it.

"It is our hope that our plan will be strong enough to not go to court," he said.

The six commissioners are appointed by the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate and by the two chairs of the state Republican and Democratic parties.

To reduce the likelihood of politics influencing districting decisions, the commissioners must not have served in an elected office for at least two years and are not allowed to run for the Legislature for five years following redistricting.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Congressional districts

Redistricting Commissioner Evan Frasure reminded the public during a hearing Thursday that the redistricting commission is also tasked with redrawing the state's two congressional districts. Currently, the state is divided along a north-south line made mostly of the borders of Lemhi, Custer, Elmore and Twin Falls counties, with part of Ada County making up the rest. State Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she's in favor of the current configuration, which divides the state into one rural and one more urban district. "There is this fear in our state that we are losing our representation for rural communities," she said. "It would behoove us to have a congressman or woman who felt more comfortable representing that area." Jaquet said urban areas are focused on business and technology, while rural areas have traditional interests in timber, mining and historically important industries. Both need representation, she said.




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