It does seem that city elected officials, absent a districting requirement, tend to clump their residences closely together.
In my small town, three of the seven elected officials have for the last two election cycles lived within a couple of blocks of each other, and two of the others, in another part of town, live nearby each other. It’s a small town, but this isn’t exactly widespread dispersal of elected officials.
I’ve seen this persistently in a variety of communities. It seems to be a not-universal but very common phenomenon. Are there reasons certain parts of many communities seem to generate more local activists? It would make for a useful study.
So while the underlying reasons may have been partisan when the Idaho Legislature acted to require cities of over 100,000 people to elect their councils by district and not at large, the effect is reasonable. (Two other Idaho cities, Meridian and Nampa, also are over 100,000 according to the newest census, but they’re arguing for holding off the change for another two years given limitations of the election calendar.)
Boise is a good case study. For generations, most of the city’s elected officials - council and mayor - have lived in one area of town, usually (not always) in or near the city’s North End. This goes way back.
One of the maps on the Boise city clerk’s council election website makes the point clearly. It shows (generally) where in town the current council members live. One of them, TJ Thomson (who will depart from the council after this term), lives on the west side of the city. All the others - Patrick Bageant, Lisa Sanchez, Jimmy Hallyburton, Elaine Clegg and Holli Woodings - live in or near the North End area.
That means no council members from southern or western (exception noted) or northwestern or eastern Boise.
The new districting approach will change that. New representatives will come from three new districts which haven’t sent anyone to city hall, plus a replacement for Thomson in the west Boise district.
To be clear, though: This is a moving picture. Only three council districts will be up for election this year, in districts 1 (the west, where Thomson lives), 3 (Boise north of Garden City and including the western North End) and 5 (the rest of the North End and some of the East End). The council members up for election this year are those whose terms were ending under the old system.
Here is what the city says about how that works: “Council members elected to these districts this year will serve two-year terms. In 2023 all six council districts will be up for election using a map that will be updated using 2020 census data. In 2023, odd-numbered districts will run for four-year terms and even-numbered districts will run for two-year terms so that council elections are staggered. We cannot legally shorten the term that a current council member is serving.”
It actually does make some sense - given the constraints of the law - but a lot of Boiseans probably will be wondering what’s happening exactly. And the people of southern and most of central Boise still will have to wait another couple of years before getting a shot at a council seat - unlike in the past, they’re actually disqualified from it this time.”
Again, though, this will straighten itself out with time. And odds are that the Boise council going forward will not be radically different from those of the recent past.
That’s not just guesswork. A generation ago, Boise was split brightly into red and blue sectors, with nearby neighborhoods leaning in different ways at general elections. Democrats and Republicans each could easily get elected in some parts of town and not in others. Today, the large bulk of Boise is more like shades of blue, some closer to purple than others but - and you can see this in recent state legislative results - all but relatively small pieces of town friendly toward Democrats. (Step a few feet outside city limits, of course, and conditions change.)
But the new representation will come from a broader reach, a wider area. People in many parts of town no doubt feel they’re being overlooked, and they have some cause for that. After another election or two, that may change, at least to a point.
Other cities around Idaho without districts would do well to watch and see how Boise does with this. It might provide a path for more of them to follow.