When Indiana’s legislative leaders were choosing sites for their nine public hearings on redistricting, they opted against Lake County, scheduling a Friday afternoon hearing instead in adjacent if less populous Porter County.

But since the hearing didn’t go to Lake County, Lake County went to the hearing, led by a contingent of Democratic legislators who warned their Republican counterparts on a joint Senate and House elections panel that even with overwhelming majorities in both chambers, they shouldn’t ignore the state’s second largest county in weighing public opinion on the upcoming redrawing of the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

Sens. Eddie Melton of Gary and Lonnie Randolph of East Chicago, along with Reps. Vernon Smith of Gary and Carolyn Jackson of Hammond, led a public contingent — some taking advantage of a community ride share — to the hearing at the Ivy Tech campus in Valparaiso.

As in each of the three other hearings held elsewhere around the state on Friday, criticism also focused on the timing of public hearings — weeks before the public release of maps showing how the districts are drawn. The once-a-decade redistricting process has been delayed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and the U.S. Census Bureau is expected to release the data needed to begin redrawing the districts on Aug. 12.

“I hope you keep in mind that you’re hear not just to represent the citizens of your district but of the whole state,” Smith testified, ” and that you give the public a chance to respond to these maps.”

Lake County, with some of the state’s highest rates of poverty, is especially vulnerable, he added, saying, “Gerrymandering is a tool politicians use on communities of poverty and those of color.”

Randolph added: “I hope you’re fair and equitable. Your starting-out point has not been, in my opinion, fair. You’ve got to talk to people.”

Testimony also came from Porter County, including that of a Republican former mayor of Valparaiso, Leigh Morris, a member of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, an independent panel formed to advise and offer alternatives to the legislative redistricting process.

Morris urged that lawmakers heed and follow the recommendations from the citizens commission issued in a report earlier this year, including holding public hearings after the release of the proposed maps.

“It is extremely important,” he said, “to have the opportunity for public input in this process.” — The Indiana Citizen

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