Five people will decide where you will live.
And no one can overrule them; not the governor, not the mayor, not even Mesa City Council.
Thousands across Mesa are expected to be on the move, though no moving vans are needed, as the “move” will be purely for local voting purposes.
Mesa is divided into six districts, with each represented by a City Council member.
The U.S. Census is a huge deal for state and local governments, as it potentially impacts population-linked funding and Congressional districts.
Early results of the 2020 Census already sent shock waves through the world of politics, as New York and California unexpectedly lost congressional seats; Arizona maintained its congressional seats, stunning those who expected the state to gain a seat.
In Mesa, the census also triggers a redistricting process. A committee will decide what the new Mesa district map will look like.
City Council will have input throughout the process, but must ultimately accept what the committee of five decides.
It would hardly be fair to allow council members to choose how their districts are shaped, as Mayor John Giles noted of the give-and-take process:
“At some point you have to impose (redistricting) on the council rather than let them choose their own fate.”
No council seats will be added or taken away, but boundaries for each of the six districts are likely to change.
At an April 29 study session, Council heard a presentation on the process for drawing boundaries.
Nationally, some blame the pandemic for the census pegging U.S. population at 331,449,281; the 7.4 percent population increase since 2010 was the second-slowest growth rate in the country’s history, according to the Census Bureau.
In Arizona, the people count was 7,158,923, a 12 percent increase since 2010 but just shy of what was needed for another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Jeff Robbins, Mesa’s census and redistricting administrator, answered the only thing that is controllable is the voluntary-response rate: “Our residents did their jobs, we had a 4 percent increase in the response rate.”
Even so, Mesa’s self-response rate of 66.3 percent trailed Maricopa County’s response rate of 68.3 percent, though it was above the state response rate of 64.1 percent.
The United States average response rate was 67 percent, though the U.S. Census Bureau insisted it followed up with the others and counted 99.9 percent of the country’s population.
Robbins referenced a 1998 Mesa initiative that put in place an “at-large” mayor and six councilmembers elected geographically in districts “equalized by population” after every census.
But, Robbins stressed, “Our redistricting is not a wholesale tearing up of our existing map.
“We’re going to be working on boundary adjustments,” he stressed, adding that by charter, current council members must stay in their districts.
The last time the process happened, the now-booming southeast corner of Mesa was vastly different, with Eastmark and Cadence just big chunks of empty land.
Now, “Mesa is growing significantly to the southeast, you’re going to have a shift in that direction,” noted City Manager Chris Brady.
Estimating the city population of 518,000 and dividing by six, Brady came up with an estimate of 86,000 people per district.
“(District) 6 may be over 100,000, so it’s got to shift,” Brady said.
Giles, a councilman when the changes were made in 1998, recalled “the concern at the time was Mesa was growing really fast … the council all came from the established parts of Mesa.”
Estimates always wrong
This week, Robbins told the Tribune raw data from the Census Bureau is expected mid-August. “Data in a publicly usable format is due no later than Sept. 30,” he added.
Asked about Brady’s use of 518,000 to base his calculation off, Robbins noted that was from a 2019 estimate.
“I’d suggest that nobody has a reliable estimate for what Mesa’s population will be,” Robbins said. “We really don’t know what to expect. The 518,000 number is based on an incremental estimate from the 2010 census over a decade ago.
“If you go back to 2000 and 2010 the incremental estimate was tens of thousands of people off both times. The only thing we know for sure is that estimates are wrong – we just don’t know by how much.”
Mesa has been through redistricting before, Robbins said.
“Generally, we expect to see a similar pattern in this redistricting to what happened in 2010. As more development occurs in east Mesa (D5 and D6), the east Mesa districts will shrink in geographical size and the other districts will grow in geographical size and nudge to the east,” Robbins said.
He added changes will be “fairly small compared to other redistricting processes statewide or nationwide. We don’t adopt the approach of a wholesale redraw of the map. Instead, it’s about incremental adjustments to existing district boundaries.”
The committee will decide
According to the study session presentation, “redistricting preserves the general area of the district.”
The charter also lays out that district boundaries are established by a “five-person nonpartisan redistricting commission appointed by City Council.”
At its April 29 meeting, Council unanimously voted to approve Giles’ recommendations for the 2021 Redistricting Committee: Elaine Miner, Deanna Villanueva- Saucedo, Jo Martin, Greg Marek and Dr. Christine Jiang.
Council also approved paying a consultant to make sure the committee complies with the Voting Rights Act and uses “best practices” to come to its conclusion.
Redistricting Partners, which boasts of 35 redistrictings over the last decade, was selected after a request-for-proposals process.
The consultant says it has “experience with large-scale, complex redistricting projects” and promises a “citizen-driven approach to redistricting.”
By city charter, Mesa must complete redistricting by the candidate filing deadline of March 7, 2022.
The schedule is for the committee to complete training this month and next, with “public awareness” beginning in June and community meetings in July and August.
Once the Census Bureau sends Mesa the population stats, the city will host a public hearing.
Commission meetings will workshop a recommended map, which will be presented to Mesa City Council Nov. 15.
Council has one shot to reject the map and ask for another one.
But the Redistricting Committee is not required to follow direction from the council members, and Mesa City Council must approve whatever final map is delivered in December.
In 2019, the U.S. Census estimated the Phoenix population at just under 1.7 million, up from 1.5 million in 2010.
The U.S. Census 2019 estimate for Mesa’s population was 518,012, behind Tucson’s 548,073. But Tucson only grew by 4 percent in the last decade, as it had a population of 526,634 in 2010.
Meanwhile, Mesa rocketed, growing by 18 percent since its 2010 population of 440,092.
According to the Maricopa Association of Governments, which projects population growth for all of the county’s cities, Mesa may have already caught Tucson.
The MAG website estimates Mesa’s 2020 population at 552,000.
The census has counted the country’s population every 10 years since 1790, when 109,826 Americans were counted by 650 U.S. marshals and assistants, riding from farm to farm on horseback.