BRIDGEPORT – A federal delay in the release of 2020 Census data has led to disagreements, threats to litigate and accusations of gerrymandering among Bridgeport City Council members.
Maria Pereira, a councilwoman for the 138th district, said in an interview with Connecticut Examiner that by law, the census is supposed to be released by April 1 of the following year, but the 2020 census data was not available until Aug. 12, 2021. According to Pereira, this created a delay in the formation of Bridgeport’s Special Committee on Redistricting, which Pereira called “illegal under the City Charter.” In comments to CT Examiner, Pereira also made the claim that a member of the committee, Councilman Ernest Newton of the 139th district, is attempting to gerrymander her precinct.
By law, every ten years, the city’s Special Committee on Redistricting establishes new City Council district lines based upon the most recent demographic census data, redistricting plans and maps.
According to Pereira, City Council President Aidee Nieves was required to form the committee before February 2021, and its work should have been finished by June 30. If the committee wasn’t created by the deadline, the majority leader could select three Democrats to serve and the Republican registrar could pick three. Pereira said that neither of the processes were followed.
“[Nieves] created a special committee 13 days before redistricting had to be complete, so this committee has no standing,” said Pereira. “The city council has no standing.”
In an interview with CT Examiner, Republican Registrar Linda Grace attributed the unconventional formation of the committee to the delay in census data. “I would have no problem putting three members on the committee. I would be happy to be part of that process, but I don’t think the situation warranted that,” she said.
CT Examiner reached out to Nieves and Majority Leader Marcus Brown for comment on this story, but neither responded.
In an April 5, 2022 Special Committee on Redistricting meeting, Kim Brace, consultant and president of Election Data Services, Inc., held an informational session to examine the census. He said that many state and local governments were behind on redistricting by five or six months due to the delay in data.
During the meeting, Pereira responded that the Connecticut legislature had redistricted every House and Senate seat on time regardless.
“These people just think they can do whatever they want,” she said of the committee.
According to an official list of City Council committees, the group is made up of Democratic council members Brown, Newton, Maria Valle, Rosalina Roman-Christy and AmyMarie Vizzo-Paniccia.
In the April 5 meeting, Pereira questioned who retained Brace’s services, as it is typically the role of the City Council to do so. According to the meeting’s minutes, temporary City Attorney Mark Anastasi explained that former City Attorney Christopher Meyer was the one who brought Brace on. “As a city council, we never debated it, discussed it, or voted on it,” Pereira said. “They don’t have no right to hire consultants to serve the legislative body. That’s our role.”
Asked about the process, Brace said that he’s been involved in Bridgeport’s redistricting for the past 30 years and his company has worked for state and local governments all around the country. He added that he is unsure of the city’s exact rules for hiring consultants as it varies by locality.
After the committee meeting, Pereira met separately with Brace and they reviewed the city map. According to Pereira, he told her that her district could take the entire left side of Boston Avenue, which she agreed with as it is “easy for voters to understand.”
She recalled Brace asking her how she felt about putting the 139th district’s polling locations down Bond Street at Harding High School. Pereira asked Brace what his basis was for this, especially when Newton’s district contains two schools that would suffice as polling locations. “I said, ‘if you do this, it’s gerrymandering. I’m going to litigate and I’m going to prevail.’”
Pereira said that the 139th district is the most overpopulated in Bridgeport, but that Newton is still attempting to take the school “because of his ego,” adding that he is a convicted felon.
Brace told CT Examiner that he doesn’t agree with Pereira’s accusations of gerrymandering. He said that Election Data Services always tries to determine what is best in redistricting by understanding the importance of local neighborhoods and polling places. In this instance, Brace said that the schools in Newton’s district don’t accommodate the large number of voters.
“You’ve got to take some grain of salt with what people say is gerrymandering, because it basically shows they don’t like what you did in this particular instance,” Brace said. “‘But hey, if you change it to the way I like it, then it’s not a gerrymander.’ That’s what you hear all the time.”
According to a 2020 report by PEW examining the impact of polling places on voting, changes or reductions in polling places “can lower turnout by creating confusion and barriers for voters, potentially disenfranchising them.” Factors such as accessibility can also determine voter turnout.
Both Brace and Newton agreed that Harding High School is convenient for voters in terms of parking and location, making it sought after by both the 138th and 139th districts.
Unlike Pereira, Newton said that he thinks the redistricting process has been “very fair,” and the people in charge know what they’re doing as they have been doing the work for over 20 years.
“There’s only one person who has been controversial, and that’s Councilwoman Pereira,” he said.
Harding High School used to reside in Newton’s district, but it was reconstructed in 2019 within Pereira’s bounds. Regardless, voters from the 139th district have continued to utilize it as a polling location.
According to Newton, the school should be in the 139th district to keep it simple for voters, adding that many of his sections of the city bleed into the 138th and have for years. “I don’t know what her argument is,” Newton said. “There’s really no argument, but she was the only one who’s voiced concern.”
In reference to Pereira’s comments on his legal troubles in which he pleaded guilty to three campaign finance charges in 2019, Newton said that his past has nothing to do with his district. “This is my third term,” he said. “I don’t listen to what Maria Pereira talks about.”