2011-11-24 / Local & State

Protesters Disrupt Redistricting Hearing

By Peter Jackson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Dozens of Pennsylvanians testified Friday before a special panel in charge redrawing the state's legislative boundaries, but only after Occupy Harrisburg activists staged a surprise protest that delayed the start of the hearing.

Just as the session before the Legislative Reapportionment Commission was scheduled to begin, about two dozen protesters interrupted with a fast-paced call-and-response chant that drowned out the chairman's attempts to restore order.

The activists, who were scattered around the crowded hearing room, clapped and took turns shouting slogans such as “We are the 99 percent!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” They also quoted excerpts from the section of the state constitution that mandates the decennial redistricting process.

The Republican-crafted redistricting plan would move one Senate seat from southwestern Pennsylvania to Monroe County in the Pocono Mountains. In the House, it would add districts in Lehigh, Berks, Chester and York counties while eliminating seats in Allegheny, Philadelphia and Erie counties.

The purpose of redistricting is to equalize the population in the 203 House districts and 50 Senate districts to conform to the 2010 census and balance representation in the Legislature.

Barry Kauffman, the state director of Common Cause, and Lora Lavin of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters urged the commission to hold more public hearings on its plan and to post all alternative redistricting plans and maps on the commission’s Web site.

Most of Friday's testimony focused on specific areas where the changes have stirred opposition.

One was GOP Sen. Jeffrey Piccola's district, which would assume a C-shape that passes through five counties and excludes Harrisburg – the fiscally troubled state capital facing a state takeover authorized by a new law that Piccola helped write. Piccola said last week he does not plan to seek re-election in 2012.

If approved, the new district “would become the new poster child for partisan gerrymandering,” Lavin said.

Patty Kim, the Harrisburg City Council vice president and a Democratic candidate for the state House, said the district was clearly engineered to ensure Piccola's re-election.

Kim said the proposal is like “the TV series `Survivor, Redistricting Edition.”'

Local officials protested the proposed relocation of Democratic Sen. James Brewster's district from Allegheny and Westmoreland counties in southwestern Pennsylvania to Monroe and Northampton counties in the northeast.

Georgeann Chuchla, manager of a McKeesport senior citizens' housing complex, said Brewster's office helps residents of the complex who have trouble reading and writing complete the paperwork they need to apply for state services such as subsidized prescription drugs.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, several Upper Darby Township residents objected to plans to split the township between two House districts, while Lavin criticized similar proposed splits in Haverford and Swarthmore.

The commission adopted the GOP proposal as its preliminary plan by a 3-2 vote on Oct. 31, beginning a 30-day public comment period, and the panel will have up to another month to approve a final plan.

The Republican and Democratic floor leaders on the panel split their votes and the commission's court-appointed chairman, Stephen J. McEwen Jr., president judge emeritus of the state Superior Court and a Republican, cast the tie-breaking vote.

This is the fifth time since 1970 that the state has used a commission to redraw district boundaries.

A standing-room- only crowd, including people who had traveled from as far away as southwestern Pennsylvania to testify, waited 40 minutes for the chanting to subside.

Capitol police and Senate security officers showed up but did not try to stop the demonstration or silence the activists.

After about a half-hour, the commission called the first witness – Kauffman – even though his critique of the redistricting plan was all but drowned out. The last protesters left peacefully a short time later.

One protester, Hanni Craton, 21, of Harrisburg, said their goal was to shut down a process that members of the group believe is stacked in favor of the political establishment.

In a development apparently unrelated to the hearing demonstration, Harrisburg city workers confiscated the tents of Occupy Harrisburg activists Friday afternoon from a riverfront park where camping is not allowed. But the group's base station at the foot of the Capitol steps was not affected.

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