If there was one thing that could bring residents and an all-star cast of current and former elected officials, community leaders and advocates together on a chilly Saturday morning in Jersey City, it was the city’s controversial new ward map.
Or, as newly-declared congressional candidate David Ocampo Grajales told the city’s Ward Commission: “It’s a little impressive that you’ve made everyone angry.”
A chorus of residents streamed into a three hour hybrid meeting at the City Hall Council chambers to lambast the new map that was eventually adopted by the commission, criticizing them over gerrymandering, the new ward boundaries, and the lack of transparency over the process that makes significant changes to the city’s six wards.
The redrawing of ward boundaries occurs every 10 years after the latest U.S. Census, and is intended to make the populations of each ward roughly the same.
Lack of transparency
The running theme throughout the entire meeting was that practically every resident saw a lack of transparency throughout the process.
Resident Andrea Ducas said over the phone that the commission could have been transparent and communicated with what was happening. “But you didn’t,” she said. “You just offloaded the maps 48 hours before the deadline, so of course people are suspicious and angry and you’re seeing some kind of reaction.”
The ward commission, which consists of six governor appointees on the Hudson County Board of Elections and the city clerk, had their first draft of the map publicized on Jan. 13. But their public meeting on it the day after ran into technical difficulties as a number people were unable to watch via Zoom.
Officials eventually settled for a meeting on Saturday, January 22. After the meeting was rescheduled, a new map was posted on Jan. 20 to be discussed.
The commission only took comments and did not answer any questions, much to the chagrin of the public. Resident Diane Atwell told the commission that because of that, residents were essentially screaming into the void.
“It makes me so sad this is happening,” she said. “This is impacting our lives, our communities, our neighborhoods. I had a whole speech planned, but finding out this committee just doesn’t really care about the people they’re supposed to represent. I just want you to think about that for a minute.”
A few also took issue with a potential conflict of interest in John Manilla, the chair of the commission, who is also a top aide to Mayor Steven Fulop.
“How’s it possible for this person out of all the candidates to be sitting there?” said resident James Moore virtually. “It makes it hard for me to believe that there is not a communication between Mr. Manilla and Mr. Fulop regarding the outcome of this redistricting.”
A number of elected officials had also taken issue with the lack of transparency, such as Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley, Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey and Hudson County Commissioner Bill O’Dea.
“I think what you’re hearing from the residents today is – show us your math,” said Prinz-Arey. “Give us the explanation as to why one map is better than the other.”
These ties don’t bind
A number of residents criticized how the new boundaries were done, with some of the most significant changes being done in the Downtown-based Ward E, which had the highest population after the 2020 Census.
A few residents who live in the northern part of Ward E were displeased that they would be placed in the Heights-based Ward D, which are essentially two different neighborhoods.
Jun Yin, a resident and homeowner in Ward E, said over the phone that it wasn’t until two days before the meeting that she learned from her neighbor that her ward would change, which she called drastic. “I feel this whole process is very hurried,” she said.
In what would be a literal split, Ward E residents Tongtong Wu and Junyang Xin said over the phone that two sister buildings at 1 Shore Lane and 20 Newport Parkway in Newport, which are connected via hallways and share the same parking lot, would be separated between Wards D and E respectively because of the new boundaries.
“This redistricting is cutting our building [at 1 Shore Lane] off these areas that my kids and family are relying on for day to day life, geographically and politically, forcing us to join the Jersey Heights community that we have never got enough chance to interact with and make acquaintance of,” said Xin.
The changes that had received the most flack at the meeting were the ones done to Ward F, which many decried as gerrymandering to politically handicap newly-elected Councilman Frank Gilmore.
Gilmore himself said while speaking that a number of developments that he’s been critical about such as the Morris Canal Manor and SciTech City would be moved out of his jurisdiction.
He also questioned how the population differences between the old and new Ward F was very small – 169 people to be specific.
“You take all of that cutting out of a particular ward to get to a differential of ,” he said. “My question to this commission is: at any point did we consider not touching the wards who already meet the state requirement as it relates to the number of people that’s in that jurisdiction.”
A number of Ward F residents also blasted the changes that would dilute the Black community’s voting power, with the Black population in the ward being decreased as the southern parts of Downtown are added to the ward.
“It is an attempt to silence the voice of the African American people in this community,” said former Board of Education Trustee Joan Terrell-Paige over the phone. “I appreciate what Councilman Gilmore presented this morning, facts that show that there is a minute difference in the number of residents in Ward F. I advocate that the current lines for Ward F do not change.”
Some also questioned why Liberty State Park was moved from Ward F to A. Sam Pesin, the president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, took note of it and explained that the streets around the area are not continuous to Greenville, in which most of Ward A consists of.
“No one lives in Liberty Park or in the industrial area next to the park,” he said over the phone.
Commission defends map despite criticism
The commission defended their decision behind making the map, despite facing calls by the public to redo them again.
“This map has the lowest possible deviation, while having the smallest possible impact on the demographic distribution of the city,” said City Clerk Sean Gallagher, who serves as the secretary of the board. “It is compact and contiguous, and therefore meets all the criteria set forth in the Municipal Ward Law.”
The commission ultimately voted 6-0-1 to adopt the map, with only one commissioner, Peter Horton, abstaining.
After the meeting, Prinz-Arey said that one has to put their emotions aside and focus on representing the people, but still reiterated her previous comments that the process should have been more transparent.
Gilmore also said that he will continue to focus on representing Ward F, but said that the commissioners did not defend why they draw the map and felt that it was “a slap in the face” to his constituents.
With the map now adopted, the city’s attempts to go to court to ask for an extension and to see if the old wards can be used for the next election could potentially become moot. A spokesperson for Jersey City did not respond for comment on what the city will do next.
An in-depth look at the new ward map for Jersey City can be seen here.