Drawing new Boston districts probably not a job for City Council

When it comes to shaping electoral districts, especially for themselves, politicians often are anything but unbiased. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Boston, where city councilors within the next few weeks could be faced with the none-too-welcome task of coming up with a redivision of the nine districts from which council and school committee members are elected.

Whether there will be any changes in the districts hinges on the outcome of a federal court suit that went to trial this week. At issue in the litigation before Judge Andrew Caffrey is the question of the opportunity for minority representation.

The plaintiffs, activists from Boston's Hispanic and black communities, contend that their potential voting strength in municipal government is ''unfairly diluted'' under the current districting arrangement.

With minorities now comprising 38 percent of the city's population, they suggest at least one-third of the nine districts should be within political reach of candidates from such groups. They note that the more heavily Hispanic parts of the city, which partially ring the predominantly black neighborhoods, are fragmented. Thus, instead of three or more districts in which minorities might have a real opportunity to win council and school committee seats, two districts were crafted to contain as many blacks and Hispanics as possible.

Obviously, this situation cannot be blamed on the current council. Yet, if the present 13 municipal lawmakers had to redraw district lines, that might involve placing in jeopardy the political careers of individual members.

For this reason Judge Caffrey, should he determine major changes in municipal districts are needed, might be well advised to set up an impartial panel of specialists to come up with a blueprint for dividing Boston in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of the city charter. Their plan then might be adopted by the court should the 13 councilors fail to agree on a redistricting that measures up to what the judge ordered.

Unless ordered by the courts, prospects for council redistricting seem remote. Those who think otherwise are overlooking a bit of Boston political history: Municipal lawmakers have not altered ward lines for 60 years, despite a state law requiring realignments every decade in years ending in four.

But even if Judge Caffrey finds no reason to step in and order the council to make districting changes - as he did on July 26, 1983, midway in a municipal election campaign - the idea of transferring future redistricting from the council has considerable merit. Such a setup, at least on a permanent basis, would almost surely require a change in the city charter, something hardly to the liking of individual councilors.

Similar arrangements involving outside special boards, it should be noted, have worked successfully in drawing legislative districts in an increasing number of states.

Regardless of the outcome of the current litigation, the Boston City Council before the 1987 election will have to at least modestly adjust its district lines based on next year's state census.

The current elective territories vary but slightly in population and are well within ''one man, one vote'' bounds. Considerably more debatable is whether the districts are as compact as possible. In some instances neighborhoods joined together have little in common.

This is particularly conspicuous in District Two, in which a large segment of the South End and Chinatown, with their heavy minority populations, are joined to more heavily populated and predominantly white South Boston.

Clearly, some other arrangement, possibly one in which portions of Dorchester were tied together, would make more sense.

It then would be possible to hitch the South End onto adjoining neighborhoods comprising residents of similar interests and concerns.

Under the present setup it is doubtful the councilors from the districts that could be altered would go along with anything in that direction.

Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, to his credit, long since has recognized the problem the council almost surely will face, sooner or later, in redistricting. At his behest, and in an effort to head off the trial, aides produced a plan for dividing the city into 10, rather than nine, elective territories of near equal population. This, however, would mean reducing from four to three the number of at-large (elected citywide) councilors and school committee members.

Efforts to win council support for the change, which among other things embraces a district comprised substantially of the South End, have sparked no enthusiasm.

Even were the council amenable to a division of the city into 10 districts, it is questionable whether that could be achieved without a further change in the charter. And that would require voter approval as in 1981, when the current nine and four setup was adopted for both council and school committee to replace the all at-large, nine-member council and the five-seat school committee. Architects of the Flynn-supported plan hold, however, that since the total number of councilors or school board members would remain at 13, a change in the composition of the two municipal elective bodies could be made by statute through a home-rule petition. Such a measure, however, would need prior approval of boththe mayor and a majority of the councilors.

Whatever is done, there has to be a better way of dividing the city to produce a municipal government that best reflects the interests of all appreciable segments of the population, including blacks and Hispanics.

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