County settles on commission district borders

Apr 4, 2012 By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

The Lander area is becoming a more centralized district, while Riverton's west side is falling into a different region under the Fremont County Commission election plan approved by the board on Tuesday.

Commissioners by a 3-2 vote approved the option known as Plan 1 that marks the first revision since a 2010 federal ruling created the five districts to allow American Indians to elect their candidate of choice.

Plan 2 would have kept the current commissioner districts roughly in place with some minor adjustments.

The district alterations are necessary to account for population changes in the 2010 U.S. Census and improve the election process for voters.

Three seats up

Because of the significant change in the Lander district's boundaries, commissioners unanimously approved putting that seat up for election this year, but they are awaiting attorney advice to determine the term's length.

The action means that District 4, represented by commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson, will be up for election. Hickerson won re-election to a four-year term in the special January 2011 general election.

The decision to put Hickerson's seat up for election resulted from figures provided by Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese that showed 2,405 voters moving from a district that did not vote last time into the new area that again would not be on their ballot.

"I am in support of that," Hickerson said at the meeting. "My preference is to make it a two-year term. I didn't see any point in changing it."

If the decision is made to set the District 4 term at two years for this election, the seat would revert to a four-year term again on the 2014 ballot.

Hickerson's seat for District 4 will join other seats held by commission chairman Doug Thompson in District 5 and commissioner Dennis Christensen in District 2 appearing on this year's ballot.

Boundaries changing

The significant changes included in the new plan expand District 1 in north Fremont County from the western edge near Dubois to the northeast corner near Shoshoni and Lysite with Pavillion in between.

Riverton's core District 3 represented by Travis Becker also has changes that include removing areas around the airport and expanding the region north to Country Acres Road.

Changes to the county's southern District 5 include extending the area north in a narrow swath to encompass Riverton west of Federal Boulevard, removing that part of the city from the district shared with Lander.

Lander will cover a swath that spans from the Baldwin Creek and Sinks Canyon areas in the east and stretches west to still include much of Hudson and a region to the west.

District 1 for most of the Wind River Indian Reservation, represented by commissioner Keja Whiteman, has very minor changes.

Each of the districts falls within the required range of population from 8,426 to 7,624, with all seeing slight reductions except for District 1, which has the highest number of people.

Supermajority required

The reservation district continues to have an American Indian supermajority, required by the court ruling, that consists of roughly 75 percent with almost 6,200 representing the ethnicity of the total 8,282 people.

Laughlin McDonald, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project based in Atlanta, said in a phone interview on Wednesday morning he had not seen the district boundary changes.

After hearing the population figures for the reservation district, McDonald said, "That sounds just about what the pre-existing percentage was. ... I'll need to take a look at the plan. If those figures are correct, I think those figures would be OK."

The Voting Rights Project, along with a Lander law firm, represented the five plaintiffs from the reservation who launched the lawsuit in 2005 against the county that objected to the at-large method of commission elections.

During discussions on Tuesday about the two proposals, Whiteman and Christensen did not attend the meeting but provided their comments through a conference call.

The commissioners on the phone supported Plan 1, with Christensen calling it "a plan that could last for 10 years until we do the next census."

"I think we need to do it right. My preference would be for Plan 1," he said.

3-2 vote

Becker and Hickerson supported Plan 2.

"This is the plan that kind of mapped out what we had before," Becker said.

"Plus it disenfranchises less voters," Hickerson added, noting a preference for the district he represents to include parts of Riverton and Lander.

"My thought from the very beginning is, What is going to be the least disruptive" to voters?" Becker said.

Hickerson's motion to approve Plan 2 that Becker seconded failed 2-3, with Thompson voting against it. But the motion to approve Plan 1 passed by the same margin.

When asked for her opinion on the plan, Freese did not give a preference.

"As far as the clerk's office doing the work on it, we'll make it work. We already have to do the legislative districts" that also changed this year, she said.

The approved plan has about 75 precincts split due to the commission districts, while the rejected proposal had about 64, she said.

Freese said her office will finalize district maps before May 1 and send notices to all registered voters in the county concerning their districts for commissioners, schools boards, state Senate and House, and municipal council wards where applicable.

The primary election filing period opens on May 17.

When asked if he would run again this year, Hickerson replied, "I haven't really even thought about it yet."

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