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Lawsuit over ward remap sure to shake up City Hall

Chicago attorney Thomas Geoghegan holds news conference City Hall discuss federal lawsuit filed behalf League Women Voters Chicago 14 Chicago

Chicago attorney Thomas Geoghegan holds a news conference at City Hall to discuss a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Chicago and 14 Chicago residents claiming the new ward redistricting map violates the federal rights of voters on Tuesday, April 2, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 4, 2013 6:45AM

Just when I was beginning to give up hope, someone has finally stepped forward to challenge the legality of last year’s Chicago ward remap.

And more importantly, they are challenging the particularly dubious practice of aldermen putting the new ward boundaries into effect immediately.

Under this practice, hundreds of thousands of city residents have been assigned to a new alderman for whom they’ve never even had a chance to vote — all for the purpose of giving those aldermen an advantage in the next election.

Unfortunately, incumbent protection has become the defining purpose of the entire ward remap process, which is why I salute the brave souls from the League of Women Voters of Chicago for filing a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the city.

I say “brave souls” because all the powers-that-be in City Hall from Mayor Rahm Emanuel on down have embraced this ward map as the most expedient solution to the political problems created by the legal requirement to draw new ward boundaries after the 2010 census.

Ever since it was approved on a 41-8 vote, supporters of the new map have been dismissive of the possibility that it could be challenged in court, citing the high cost and political difficulties of doing so. They are not keen on anybody mucking up their work.

But Thomas Geoghegan, lead lawyer for the League of Women Voters and 14 individual plaintiffs, said he has brought a “very simple case” that should be neither expensive nor drag out for years, as has been common with past remap challenges.

The essence of the court complaint is that aldermen violated the most basic purpose of redistricting: to divide the 50 wards equally by population.

Instead, there is a disparity of 4,715 between the most populous ward, the 43rd with 56,170 residents, and the least populous, the 5th with 51,455 residents.

That violates the one-man, one-vote principle and makes the ward map unconstitutional, the plaintiffs argue.

Those who drew up the map have argued from the start that they are allowed to deviate from an equal split of 53,912 residents per ward if doing so helps protect the voting rights of racial minorities.

To the extent this map accomplishes that goal, it does so only coincidentally, as its main purpose was to cement the futures of the incumbent aldermen by maximizing their re-election prospects for 2015.

“Our view is that the voters should pick the aldermen instead of the aldermen picking the voters,” said Geoghegan, who has a long track record of taking up public interest cases challenging the political establishment.

This may be the first time anyone has challenged the custom of aldermen getting a jump start on the post-remap election by implementing the new ward boundaries immediately.

By doing so, they can begin to “service” or curry favor with the voters who they will face in 2015.

The flip side of that arrangement, however, is that residents of some wards who just voted to install new aldermen in 2011 are being told they are no longer represented by those individuals.

For instance, in the 36th Ward on the Far Northwest Side, where Ald. Nicholas Sposato was just elected two years ago, most of his ward is now outside the new boundaries, much to his chagrin.

“They elected me for a four-year term. They’re the ones getting disenfranchised,” said Sposato, who voted against the map and has lobbied against its early implementation.

As an example of what can go wrong, Sposato said he had opposed the zoning for a new pawn shop in the ward in keeping with the wishes of residents. But his efforts were countermanded by Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), in whose ward the property will lie under the new map but who has yet to stand for election with those voters.

Geoghegan argues this “early bird” representation is as illegal as the map itself.

“By taking over representation in this way, the incumbent City Council members have the ability to direct aldermanic funds to win favor with the voters in the next election, make zoning decisions favorably for such voters, and create ‘obligations’ and ‘favors owed’ that would enhance their chances of reelection in the new wards,” he wrote.

The League of Women Voters and the other plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to appoint someone who will draw new a ward map or maps that could be submitted to a referendum.

You say you’d like to see city government shaken up a little? That would do it.

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