NRI legislators dissent on state’s redistricting plan due to last minute changes

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PROVIDENCE – Versions of Rhode Island’s redistricting maps recently passed by a legislative panel have been available for weeks, with 18 meetings providing plenty of opportunity for public feedback… except for one.

A new version of the Senate map with changes to the Smithfield/Lincoln border reportedly came out just minutes before the commission voted to approve it.

Four Republican legislators, including three from the northern Rhode Island towns of Burrillville and North Smithfield, say they cast the only dissenting votes on the 17-member redistricting commission in reaction to the unexpected change, and the shadow it cast on the process.

“We received the final version five minutes before the meeting was called to order,” said Rep. David Place, the deputy minority House leader who represents District 47 in Burrillville and Glocester. “We don’t know how the changes impacted the people out there, or if people wanted to comment.”

The process of redrawing Rhode Island’s political boundaries with new House, Senate and Congressional maps began last year in effort to incorporate data from the 2020 census. The outcome will shape the state’s political landscape for the next decade, as new boundaries are drawn for representative seats.

The panel met for several months holding 18 public hearings and publishing three proposed versions of the House and Senate maps. The recommended versions will now head to to committee before going before the General Assembly for approval.

The biggest change envisioned for Rhode Island’s voting precincts involves how inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston are counted. The plan would see 41 percent of state inmates counted at their home addresses if they’re expected to be in prison for less than two years, or have not yet been sentenced.

Boundaries in northern Rhode Island have seen slight changes, including the line dividing Senate territory currently represented by Sen. Melissa Murray of District 24 and Sen. Jessica de la Cruz of District 23, to account for population growth in Woonsocket. The District 23 boundary has moved slightly east, giving de la Cruz more territory in North Smithfield.

“There are going to be changes because of the population shifts,” de la Cruz explained this week while discussing the maps with NRI NOW.

North Smithfield will also have two representatives under the current plan, with Rep. Stephen Lima’s District 49 in Woonsocket moving into town. Rep. Brian Newberry, meanwhile, picked up more of Burrillville, with a previous line at Douglas Pike extended to Spring Lake.

Both Newberry and Place advocated for a change to unite the Mapleville Trailer Park, which is now fully situated in House District 47, rather than divided in half, according to the proposed map.

But Republican dissent – and some questions regarding process – came as the result of a last minute change placing a small sliver of Lincoln into District 22, which is represented by commission co-chairman Sen. Stephen Archambault, a Democrat from Smithfield.

Previous versions of the Senate map showed the boundary between Archambault’s voting precinct and Republican Sen. Thomas Paolino’s District 17 drawn at the Smithfield/Lincoln town line.

But in a last minute surprise, a new map created a, “pocket district,” where 22 encroaches into 17, a change not displayed in any of the other maps. The adjustment will require the town to set up a new precinct for the small sliver, which includes land owned by Archambault according to reports this week in The Boston Globe.

“It’s going cost the town money to do that,” de la Cruz said. “No reason was given.”

Newberry, who immediately objected to the change in commission, pointed out that the last minute adjustment pushed both districts to the extreme limits of boundary rules. And while opponents had time to speak against other proposals, such as one that would have split the Hill and Harbor in East Greenwich into separate House districts, no public feedback was permitted.

“Even a week would have meant time to discuss it with constituents,” said de la Cruz. “There was no time for that.”

The Northern Rhode Island legislators – Newberry, Place and de la Cruz – joined the only other Republican on the commission, Sen. Gordon Rogers of Foster, in the vote, which ultimately passed 13-4.

“The changes came in at 530 (p.m.) and the meeting started at 5:35,” Rogers said of his decision. “We basically took an oath to be transparent and open and have a fair process and I would hate to see it tainted.”

Those who would like to weigh in on the changes are expected to have the opportunity while the maps are in legislative committee. Once the maps are finalized, municipalities across the state will be tasked with creating the new precincts.

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