Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democrat, voted to discuss memos about minority representation in private, but has since changed his mind. (Bridge photo by Dale G Young)

LANSING — At least one member of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission says he may release two private memos about minority representation that the group is keeping secret.

The commission has claimed attorney-client privilege in refusing requests to disclose the memos, titled “Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting.”

The documents informed the commission’s drawing of state House, Senate and congressional districts in Detroit, particularly relating to majority-minority districts designed to allow people of color to elect public officials.

“I personally cannot see any legal strategy that was really discussed in that particular closed session that the public should not be made aware of,” Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democrat from Ypsilanti, said during the panel’s meeting Thursday.

He said he will present a motion to discuss the matter during the commission’s next meeting Dec. 2.

The possible change of heart comes after weeks of public pressure from citizens, lawmakers and news publishers who have demanded the panel make the documents available for public review.

Among those publicly petitioning the commission to release the memos are Bridge Michigan, The Detroit News and the Michigan Press Association.

The commission has treated the requests as a Freedom of Information Act request, which allows it to delay a decision until near the end of a 45-day public comment period to receive feedback from the public on its 15 proposed maps.

Both documents were drafted by the panel’s attorney and discussed behind closed-doors on Oct. 27, amid complaints from Black residents about the panel’s decision to create fewer majority-Black districts in the state.

Witjes supported discussing the documents in secret last month. Republican Commissioners Rhonda Lange and Erin Wagner were the only dissenting votes on the 13-member panel.

State lawmakers have asked for an opinion from the office of Attorney General Dana Nessel about the legality of the closed session.

The commission was created in 2018 after voters pushed for a transparent redistricting process.  For decades, the party in power in the Michigan Legislature was in charge of drawing the new districts. The process occurred largely in private, and led to some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country.

Commissioner Rebecca Szetela, a Democrat who serves as chair, said Thursday she has also been “mulling” over the memos, but that she wants to hear the recording of the closed-door meeting before she makes up her mind on whether to release them.

Szetela also initially supported keeping the memos out of the public eye.

Lisa McGraw, manager of the Michigan Press Association, said it’s important for the public to have the documents before the commission votes on the districts.

“Let’s get them out there,” McGraw said.

Panel to decide voting process

The redistricting commission is also expected to flush out the process it will use to vote on the final maps. That vote could happen no earlier than Dec. 28.

Sarah Reinhardt, the commission’s secretary, said staff from the Michigan Secretary of State and the redistricting commission will meet to come up with a “thorough” process for review.

Among the issues to consider: whether the commission will vote on all the maps at the same time; whether each map category should be taken individually; and whether there will be discussion about maps submitted by individual members.

During public comment, Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the grassroots group that helped create the commission, suggested that members vote through a secret ballot.

“We hope that you will adopt best practices like putting all the maps on the same ballot and voting by secret ballot so you can reach the right decision,” Wang said.

Her comment drew immediate criticism, with Republican strategist Jamie Roe tweeting “you simply can’t make this up,” since her group pushed for “transparency” and “is now telling a public body to violate the Open Meetings Act.”

Later Thursday, Wang clarified her recommendations.

“Our proposal for addressing the voting process would be for every commission member to write down their map choice and put their name on that paper, and have them read out by the commission chair one by one, identifying which map has the support of which commissioner or commissioners,” Wang said in a statement.

“The goal is to ensure all members express themselves clearly and without the pressure that a roll call, or a vote on each map, might present.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *