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The Michigan redistricting panel is done mapping. Now it’s time for drama.

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(Screenshot)

LANSING — It’s been quite the week for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

One day after the resignation of the panel’s top attorney, tension between members peaked Thursday, with commissioners accusing the chair of the panel of bullying and mistreatment. 

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Republican Commissioner Rhonda Lange unsuccessfully sought to censure Chair Rebecca Szetela, an independent,  for what she claimed were violations of the panel’s code of conduct.

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“(Szetela) in both her role as vice chair and chair has at many times been rude to members of the commission … has been arrogant to members of the commission,” Lange told the panel in an emotional speech. 

“In my opinion, she has always also bullied people, not only during the mapping process, but also put forth public attacks in open meetings on people's characters with no justification.”

Multiple commissioners tried to stop Lange from continuing, but outgoing general counsel Julianne Pastula said she had the right to push for the motion.

Lange’s motion failed 3 to 8. The only commissioners who voted for it were Lange, Republican Erin Wagner, and Democrat Dustin Witjes. Szetela abstained, citing conflict of interest.

In a text message to Bridge Michigan after the vote, Szetela said “the commission’s vote speaks for itself.”

“I’m grateful for the commission’s support and have already put this distraction behind me,” she wrote.

Commissioner Steve Lett, an independent, proposed picking up the conversation in two weeks.  

“To say that we have had a somewhat contentious meeting today would be an understatement,” Lett said. “I would like to see us step back, take a breath, and then come back in a couple of weeks to consider what it is that we really want to do without bashing each other.”

It was just one of several tense moments Thursday for the 13-member panel that was created by voters in 2018 to take over the process of drawing legislative boundaries every 10 years.

Until this year, the party in power had drawn districts for the state Legislature and Congress, a process that led to gerrymandering that favored Republicans.

The commission has a $3.1 million budget. Members learned Thursday they could face an $827,000 deficit this quarter because of legal costs to defend two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the maps.

Bickering and a documentary 

Even so, commissioners voted to pay $50,000 for a documentary about themselves and the process. The feature will discuss “lessons learned” in the past year, as well as the creation and process of drawing the districts, commission spokesperson Edward Woods III told the panel.

Lange suggested the panel could reduce the salary to commissioners to cut costs since nearly all of its work is completed. 

A constitutional amendment passed by voters calls for commissioners to make at least 25 percent of the governor’s salary, which is now $159,300. Instead, commissioners have voted to pay themselves $55,755, the equivalent of 35 percent of the salary.

The proposal failed since most of the commissioners opposed a pay cut, including Democrat Brittni Kellom. She said hard work may lay ahead even though districts are done. If the commission loses legal challenges, members could be ordered to redraw maps.

“I am not the only voice that would like to continue to be compensated for the very hard work that we've already been doing and the work that we have been doing, especially those that are getting up out of the house to do the work,” said Kellom, who at one point had the most absences in the commission.

Her comments were a jab at Lange, who had attended nearly all of the meetings virtually. Lange has cited health problems. 

Lange responded, saying she was “sick and tired of the personal attacks.”

“I have not bullied anybody on this commission—  I may say things that get under people's skin, but I have never bullied anybody,” Lange said. 

She asked Szetela to reprimand Kellom, but the chair declined.

Search for a new general counsel

The commission is the target of two ongoing lawsuits. One is from Republicans claiming that congressional maps should be redrawn because they don’t all have equal population.

Another suit from Detroit Democrats claims the state legislative and congressional maps violate the U.S. Constitution by diluting minority representation.

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The Michigan Supreme Court heard the oral arguments on the case Wednesday. Hours later, Pastula emailed members her resignation.

Pastula has gone back-and-forth with Szetela over legal strategy. Last year, Szetela unsuccessfully proposed giving commissioners more oversight power over the panel’s attorneys. 

Pastula has not returned multiple requests for comments. In her letter to the commission she didn’t cite a reason for quitting.

As general counsel, Pastula coordinated the legal strategy of the commission and the other attorneys hired by the panel.

During Thursday’s meeting, Pastula didn’t talk about her decision. Executive Director Sue Hammersmith said the commission will have to start a search for Pastula’s replacement.

“The remaining staff will be working on an interim plan that we will bring back to the commission in two weeks to assure that there is a smooth transition and to assure that there is a plan in place for this position,” Hammersmith told the panel. 

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