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Allegheny County Council approves redistricting commission

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Council voted Tuesday in favor of a new process for drawing the boundaries of its own council districts.

New boundaries are drawn for legislative districts after each national census. Under county council’s current rules, that process has been controlled by the council president.

Under new rules proposed by outgoing Councilor Tom Duerr, however, council will establish a bipartisan commission to create and recommend three maps for council to consider. Commission representatives must be familiar with the use of data, the redistricting process, and community outreach. After the commission presents three maps, council members will be able to submit their own options.

Duerr said the new approach puts a “soft lock on council's ability to hammer through their own [map], or an individual member hammering through a potentially aggressive gerrymander of one.”

Critics have said the traditional approach has lacked transparency and leaves maps vulnerable to gerrymandering and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. The result: Maps that don’t accurately represent the county’s communities – or its partisan make-up.

While Democratic voters outnumber Republicans two to one in Allegheny County, there are only two Republicans on the 15-member council.

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Duerr first introduced a version of this bill in 2021, before the most recent reapportionment. He told WESA Monday that the change is meant to take redistricting decisions out of legislators’ hands.

“I don't think this is a new, hot take — especially given all of the attention that gerrymandering and redistricting reform has gotten over the past couple of years. But I firmly am a big believer in that movement and do not believe that legislators should have the ability to draw their own districts,” Duerr said.

State law has its own rules for redistricting, and those ensure that commission recommendations will be non-binding. Council members themselves will ultimately choose the final map. The version of the ordinance passed Tuesday allows county council staff to help commission members run meetings and perform administrative tasks. But they will otherwise be insulated from the commission’s redistricting process.

The ordinance garnered support from good-governance groups including the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, members of which urged council to approve the bill.

“There are always incentives to gerrymander and to use boundary lines to squeeze out a rival or protect an ally,” said Ruth Quint, speaking on behalf of the League. But she said the ordinance’s reforms “would introduce important guardrails and transparency” to the redistricting process.

All 14 members of council present Tuesday voted in favor of the ordinance; Democrat Anita Prizio was absent. It now heads to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s desk.

Still, the rule will not affect the current county council districts, and it won’t take effect until it's time to draw lines after the 2030 census.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at