Redistricting commission rejects proposed pay cut as it faces $827K shortfall

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission voted Thursday in support of a $50,000 documentary on its work and against lowering their own pay in a heated virtual meeting.

The decision against lowering the 13-member panel's pay came as the commission's executive director informed the panel that it faced a $827,000 shortfall in its $3.1 million budget.

Commissioners cited the demands of continued work on the panel's final report and two pending lawsuits in state and federal court as reasons for maintaining their current pay rate.

The 10-2 vote against docking the salaries came the day after the panel's general counsel unexpectedly submitted her resignation and just ahead of an unsuccessful motion to censure commission Chairwoman Rebecca Szetela. 

Commissioners speak and listen to public comment at the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission meeting in Lansing on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

The $50,000 documentary project awarded to Gud Marketing Thursday has been described as a "lessons learned" video to inform the work of future commissioners, who are selected and convened every 10 years to redraw Michigan's political boundaries under a constitutional amendment adopted in 2018.

The commission took its final vote to adopt voting district maps for Congress, the state House and state Senate in late December and has held two meetings since as it prepares its final report and documentary.

The panel also faces two pending lawsuits challenging the maps in state and federal court. Unfavorable decisions in those or future cases over the next decade could force the commission back into session and back to the drawing board to draw new maps in compliance with court orders. 

Commissioner Rhonda Lange and Erin Wagner, both Republicans, suggested commissioners' pay be cut to 25% of the governor's salary, about $39,825 annually, instead of the current rate of 35% of the governor's salary, or about $55,000.

Wagner and Lange were the only members in support of the decrease, although other member said they may be open to decreases when the lion's share of their work is complete. 

"We are still relevant," said Commissioner M.C. Rothhorn, a Democratic member of the panel. "And we are defending maps and we are still a body of government for the people."

"I think we're compensated adequately for the work that we do," said Commissioner Anthony Eid, an independent member of the commission. 

The commission discussed the possibility of approaching the Legislature for more money to meet its expected $827,000 shortfall but ultimately voted to table the issue until commissioners had a better handle on final numbers. 

"The commission will continue to review the budget and look for cost saving measures," said Edward Woods, a spokesman for the commission. "After that is complete, the commission will reach out the legislature to make up for the shortfall."

It's not clear how the GOP-led Legislature will receive the request. Spokespersons for House and Senate leadership did not return messages seeking comment. 

Michigan Republicans and, at times, Democrats have criticized the group's work over the past several months. 

The tense budget discussions Thursday ended with fireworks over a suggested censure of Szetela, an independent member of the commission. 

Lange moved to censure the chairwoman for conduct unbecoming of a commissioner because of what she alleged was bullying by Szetela.

"I have personally felt bullied and I’m sorry that people will disagree with that," Lange said. "I’ve also seen it toward other people on the commission and staff. ... I can no longer stand for it.”

Several commission members came to Szetela's defense and tried to rein in Lange in a heated exchange. 

"Can someone please step in?" Democratic Commissioner Brittni Kellom asked at one point. "…This is a nightmare.”

Lange has frequently clashed with several members of the commission including Szetela. Likewise, Szetela has clashed with general counsel Julianne Pastula who had to advise Lange on how to appropriately move for the censure. 

"It’s a motion to censure, which is just disapproval of behavior," Pastula said. 

In light of the conflicts between them, Szetela questioned the appropriateness of the guidance from Pastula, who submitted her resignation to the board Wednesday. 

The commission is expected to discuss at future meetings Pastula's resignation, how the commission would convene over the next decade and a potential request to the Legislature for more funds.