CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia lawmakers are keeping their minds open and the drawing board blank as they hear from state residents about redistricting, the legislator overseeing the Senate's share of the process tells The Associated Press.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger told AP he's also encouraged by the turnout so far at the two public hearings held by the bipartisan Senate Redistricting Task Force. More than 120 attended the inaugural meeting May 4 in Martinsburg while at least 70 were on hand for Wednesday's session in Wheeling.
"It was pleasantly surprising. I wasn't sure whether people would be interested, but they are," the Berkeley County Democrat said Saturday. "We are there to listen to them. We don't have any plans, any maps yet. We haven't even met, besides to have these public hearings."
Chaired by Unger and featuring one senator from each of that chamber's 17 districts, the task force has scheduled a dozen meetings around the state. Upcoming hearings include one Wednesday evening in Charleston and another Saturday morning in Fairmont.
Figures from the 2010 Census show population growth in the Eastern Panhandle, led by Berkeley County, and in Morgantown. The southern coalfield counties saw declines continue from the previous population count, while the Northern Panhandle also experienced a drop. The Legislature must now redraw district lines for the House of Delegates, state Senate and U.S. House to ensure equal representation.
The latest Census suggests that each delegate should represent 18,530 people, but just 44 of 100 seats in 20 of the House's 58 districts fall within 5 percent of that figure. Only five of the Senate's 17 districts, each hosting two senators, contain populations within 5 percent of the ideal of 109,000 residents.
At least two of the U.S. House districts will also require changes. While the 1st District is within 1 percent of the ideal size of 617,665 people, the 2nd District has 30,521 residents too many and the 3rd District has nearly 29,000 too few.
The footprint of the 2nd Congressional District became a dominant topic of the hearing in Martinsburg, the Berkeley County seat, Unger said. The 18-county district stretches from the Eastern Panhandle and the Potomac River clear across the state to the Ohio River counties of Mason and Jackson.
"There was a lot of discussion of gerrymandering," Unger said. "(People were saying,) 'How in the world is Jefferson County or Berkeley County connected to Kanawha County or Putnam County or Mason County.' That's a pretty creative district, when you look at it on a map."
Critics of the district's layout at the hearing included former Congressman Harley O. Staggers Jr., who represented the area until the 1990 Census cost West Virginia a House seat. While much of his district helped form the current 2nd District, Staggers' residence ended up in the 1st U.S. House District, and he lost election to its incumbent, then-Rep. Alan Mollohan.
GOP Rep. David McKinley won the 1st District seat last year. His supporters called for the Legislature to preserve its boundaries during the meeting in Wheeling, McKinley's home town and the Northern Panhandle's largest city, Unger said.