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Michigan redistricting panel sticks with pay raise despite fewer meetings

Dustin Witjes
Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democrat, said a 7 percent raise is justified because the Michigan redistricting commission is his full-time job. (Bridge photo by Sergio Martínez-Beltrán)

March 24: Michigan redistricting commissioners reverse their own pay raise

LANSING— Michigan redistricting commissioners on Thursday stood by their decision to raise their pay, despite pushback from the public and a deficit of more than $1 million.

The 13-member panel deadlocked 6-6 on a bid to reconsider a Feb. 24 decision to increase their salary by 7 percent to nearly $59,650.

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Rebecca Szetela, an independent who is chair of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, pushed for the move, saying she’s heard “a lot of feedback from the public that was very negative with respect to that pay raise.”

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Democrat Brittni Kellom said that comes with the territory but the raise is justified because of inflation. Inflation rose 7.9 percent in February, the highest in 40 years.

“We've been criticized this whole time, so it doesn't surprise me that … any discussion thus far in terms of what the commission decides could be frowned upon. I'm not concerned about that,” Kellom said.,

“I'm concerned about the livelihood and well being of these folks in front of me and I hope that some of you are as well.”

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was created in 2018 after voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that shifted the responsibility of drawing political boundaries from the Legislature.

The old system allowed the party in power in Lansing to draw the lines every 10 years, which led to some of the most Republican gerrymandered districts in the nation.

The pay raise comes even though the commissioners’ job is mostly done. The commission has a $3.1 million budget, but projections show a shortfall of nearly $1.2 million through the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. 

According to the constitutional amendment that created the panel, “the terms of the commissioners shall expire once the commission has completed its obligations for a census cycle but not before any judicial review of the redistricting plan is complete.”

The commission approved the new state legislative and congressional maps on Dec. 28. The maps are set to take effect this month, but there are two pending suits against the panel.

In recent weeks, commissioners have moved to twice-monthly meetings from nearly daily ones late last month. Meetings last less than four hours, rather than more than six hours when members were configuring the districts.

Some commissioners say their workload has not decreased.

Dustin Witjes, a Democrat who is the new vice chair of the commission, told reporters this is his full time job.

“I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that there is absolutely no way someone would have been able to have a full time job and be doing this at the same time,” Witjes said. 

“You've seen how busy we've been — to suggest that we would’ve been able to do this and have a full time job is absolutely asinine.”

At least one commissioner – Kellom — has kept her full-time job while serving as commissioner. She faced criticism last year for a significant amount of absences

Szetela told reporters at least  three other commissioners have gone back to their full-time jobs.

“Regardless of what justifications might have been in place for salaries in September or August or October even, I think a lot of those justifications are fading away because the reality is we are meeting twice a month,” Szetela told reporters. 

“We had a two-hour meeting today. We had, I think, a three hour meeting at the last meeting, so that's six hours a month that we're meeting, and we're getting paid thousands of dollars.

“I think we could stomach having lower salaries at this point because we're just not getting as much work, even though we did a tremendous amount of work and much more than full time back in August, September, October, November and December.”

New executive director

During Thursday’s meeting, commission executive director Sue Hammersmith announced she is at the end of the month.

“This has been an experience of a lifetime and I truly appreciate the opportunity to work with this commission in this historic initiative,” Hammersmith told reporters. 

Hammersmith will be replaced by Edwards Woods III, the commission’s current director of communications and outreach.

Commissioners suggested giving Woods a salary of a little over $150,000 a year. However, Woods will have to negotiate the new contract next.

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It’s unclear for how long Woods will be on the job, since the constitutional amendment doesn’t specifically say what happens to the commission once the pending lawsuits are resolved. 

The 13-person panel has asked its legal team to issue an opinion on what they think the next step is for the commission. 

Hammersmith’s departure comes nearly two months after the commission’s general counsel abruptly resigned.

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