Independent redistricting panel to hire executive director Thursday

Anti-gerrymandering protest, October 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. | Olivier Douliery, Getty Images

Michigan’s decades of gerrymandered districts will turn a new page, in theory, once a randomly-selected group of citizens finish drawing the state’s new district lines by November 2021. That panel is expected to select its new executive director Thursday out of a pool of six finalists.

The autonomous Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was created in 2018 when Michiganders voted for Proposal 2  to make a randomly selected group of 13 citizens, rather than lawmakers or special interests, responsible for drawing the state’s U.S. congressional and state House and Senate district lines. There are four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents.

According to some experts, the gerrymandering of Michigan’s current political districts is worse than almost anywhere else in the country.

Their executive director, according to the commission’s job posting, will assist the commission throughout the map drawing process by taking on a number of legal, strategic, administrative, staffing and managerial duties to the tune of a $124,025-$164,321 salary range.

Although the commission’s equal opportunity statement reads that it will consider all persons regardless of characteristics including “partisan considerations,” the panel itself was created with the goal of a nonpartisan outcome by creating the fairest map possible.

Nancy Wang, Voters Not Politicians | Claire Moore

Nancy Wang is executive director of Voters Not Politicians, which spearheaded Proposal 2.

“As the commission contemplates who they will hire as executive director, it is essential that they look at not just what the applicants say about themselves, but also carefully examine the information being offered up by the public,” Wang said. “It’s important that we listen to members of the public, as they provide critical input on the journey to bring fair maps to Michigan. While there is no perfect candidate, there are still right and wrong choices. The redistricting process is playing out as intended — fairly, impartially and transparently.”

The commission itself has full control over who to hire for executive director and does not receive input or recommendations from the Michigan Department of State.

The six finalists are:

  • Amna Seibold — Chair of the Ferris State University Board of Trustees, appointed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. She previously was mayor of East Grand Rapids, city commissioner of East Grand Rapids and director of Trinity Health’s Department of Pathology.
  • Brandon Brice — Conservative political commentator and columnist and a former candidate for Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education in 2018.
  • Sheryl Mitchell — City administrator for Lathrup Village. She previously was Albion city manager and held  other commissioner roles in West Bloomfield and Oakland County.
  • Vicki DeVould-Cohn — Small business owner with experience in the education field. She previously ran for Kalamazoo Public Library Board in 2018.
  • Janette Phillips — Owner of a consulting firm for Michigan nonprofits. She has previous leadership experience in corporate sales and development.
  • Suann Courtright Hammersmith — President of a consulting firm for nonprofits.

Unlike the other candidates, both Seibold and Brice are public about their right-leaning political views. Seibold has financial ties to the Michigan Republican Party that go back nearly two decades.

From 2004 to 2020, state campaign finance filings show that the former East Grand Rapids mayor donated a total of $1,125 to a number of GOP candidates for state office and other Republican causes.

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That includes a total of $600 to GOP former state Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, $250 to failed 2020 Republican House candidate John Inhulsen, $100 to state Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford), $50 to former state House candidate Bob Elevend and $25 to former Gov. Rick Snyder’s second gubernatorial campaign.

Seibold also donated $100 over the years to the Kent County Republican Committee — the same group that funded her May 2019 campaign kickoff event when she ran a third time for mayor.

Seibold also made a number of contributions to Republicans from her nonpartisan mayor office’s campaign account.

But will these political ties matter if either Seibold or Brice are hired for the job? Not necessarily, according to Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council.

“Few people are outwardly apolitical and fewer have an incentive to be. I don’t think it matters for this position. From my perspective, the executive director position will be far more administrative than policy oriented,” Lupher told the Advance Wednesday.

“The constitutional amendment creates balance on the commission and incentives for commissioners to compromise when adopting maps. The executive director is important to provide the commissioners the information they need, but will not have decision-making authority to affect how maps are drawn,” Lupher said.