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Lawmakers launch Mass. redistricting process

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A legislative commission unveiled a website and announced a series of public hearings last week as it began the sensitive task of carving out new political districts in Massachusetts that will reflect the loss of a congressional seat.

Democrats leading the 24-member commission vowed transparency as they held their first organizational meeting and said any state resident wanting to provide input to the panel would have a chance to do so.

Republicans and some government watchdog groups had fought unsuccessfully to create an independent group to redraw the legislative and congressional districts. But even House Minority Leader Bradley Jones was complimentary of the commission’s efforts so far.

“It’s no secret … that those of us on the Republican side wanted to use a process other than the one that has been laid out,” Jones said during a news conference unveiling the website.

“But the process that has been laid out today and going forward is different than the process that has been used in the past, and I would say different in a positive way,” Jones said.

The state is losing one its 10 U.S. House seats because of shifts in population reported in the latest U.S. Census. All 10 current members are Democrats.

The commission must also draw a new map for legislative districts in Massachusetts.

The interactive website, www.malegislature.gov/redistricting, will allow residents to submit online testimony if they are unable to attend any of the 13 public hearings planned. Video of the hearings will also be posted on the site.

“No voice is more important than any other voice, but all voices will be heard in this process and we encourage people to participate in any way they choose,” said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and co-chairman of the panel, along with Rep. Michael Moran of Boston.

The first public hearing is scheduled for March 26 in Springfield. Other hearings have been scheduled for Lynn, Worcester, Pittsfield, Brockton, Framingham, New Bedford, Greenfield, Quincy and Lawrence. Legislators said additional hearings will be held in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood and on Cape Cod, with a final hearing expected at the Statehouse.

The panel set no firm date for completing the new maps, which must also be approved by the full Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick.

Cheryl Crawford, of the citizens group MassVote, said she hoped the new maps would be finished early enough so they could be thoroughly reviewed.

“We just hope that this transparency is sustained throughout the entire process, especially after the maps are drawn,” she said.

Commission members were briefed last Wednesday by attorneys on the delicate balance they will face in crafting districts that will meet all state and federal constitutional requirements and stand up to any potential court challenge.

Districts must be contiguous, roughly equivalent in population and cannot be formed in a way that dilutes the voting power of minorities, said Reed Witherby, counsel to the panel.

The process must also steer clear of blatant manipulation of districts for political purposes, he said.

Redistricting has a long and sometimes controversial history in Massachusetts.

Elbridge Gerry, a governor in the early 1800s, forever had his name associated with “gerrymandering,” a term that was coined for the practice of manipulating districts to favor the party in power.

More recently, former House Speaker Thomas Finneran pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge after being accused of giving false testimony about his role in the creation of new legislative districts in 2000. Opponents had challenged the map in court, saying it discriminated against black and other minority voters in Boston.

Associated Press