PROVIDENCE — A co-chairman of the state redistricting commission is facing questions about whether the border of his Senate district was changed at the last minute to include land he owns.
Through 18 hearings and three variations of proposed new maps, the Smithfield/Lincoln town line served as the eastern boundary for the Senate District 22, which is represented by co-chairman Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat.
But on Wednesday night, the commission received and promptly voted for a fourth version of the maps – Senate Plan D – that shifts a long narrow slice of Lincoln into Senate District 22, removing those voters from District 17, represented by Senate Deputy Minority Leader Thomas J. Paolino, a Lincoln Republican.
The last-minute change drew an immediate objection from Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican on the redistricting commission. “Why are we suddenly taking a piece of Lincoln and adding it into Senate 22 in Smithfield?” he said. “What’s the reason for that?”
The state’s redistricting consultant, Kimball W. Brace, said “some components of the neighborhood” in Lincoln had “expressed an interest” in joining Senate District 22.
But Newberry said the change pushed the districts to the extreme limits of how many people must be in each district and created a small new voting precinct that could prove difficult for Lincoln election officials.
“It looks very weird, and I hope that the Senate takes a hard look at it for a whole variety of reasons when it gets there,” Newberry said. “This is something that, since we are seeing it for the first time tonight, that is going to catch some attention.”
The change quickly drew the attention of Archambault’s opponent in the Senate 22 Democratic primary, Melanie DuPont, treasurer of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative.
In answer to Newberry’s question about the new district boundary, DuPont tweeted, “It’s probably because Archambault owns 0 Whipple Road in Lincoln, which abuts his 195 Whipple Road in Smithfield. Maybe he wants to build a new house without moving out of Senate District 22 … so he just widens SD22 to consume that part of Lincoln.”
Town records confirm that Archambault lives at 195 Whipple Road in Smithfield and owns a nearby vacant 5.3-acre parcel of land at 0 Whipple Road in Lincoln. He purchased the land in April 2008, and it’s assessed at $18,500, records show.
When asked Friday if he plans to build on that land, Archambault said, “I have no plans to move from Smithfield. Period.”
“As a lifelong resident of the area in question, I can understand why the consultant placed that Lincoln neighborhood within Senate District 22,” he said. “There are several shared interests, underscored by the fact that many of those houses are most easily accessed by traveling through Smithfield. Although these changes make Senate District 22 more Republican, I am fully supportive of them because they keep communities of interest together.”
He said his property is the historic Blacksmith John Angel farm, which dates back to about 1720. “Like many residents in the area, my property straddles the border of Smithfield and Lincoln, and my almost 50 acres are in Smithfield and Lincoln,” he said.
Archambault said he was proud to serve as co-chair of the Special Commission on Reapportionment, which he called “the most transparent and diverse commission in our state’s history.” He said, “We held 18 hearings, heard ample public testimony, and received numerous online submissions regarding communities of interest across the state.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, “We have referred to this process as one that is foremost about incumbent protection, and incumbent protection can take many forms. If Senator Archambault requested that the line be moved because he might be changing addresses, he might be simply trying to preserve his ability to run for office from his new address.”
Newberry said he usually does not ask about Senate district matters, but he said Paolino’s district includes his house in North Smithfield.
He said the last-minute change pushes Senate District 17 to the brink of the 5 percent margin that’s allowed for the population of individual districts. Under Plan C, Senate District 17 was within 2.24 percent of the target population, but under Plan D, it is now within 4.94 percent of the target, he noted.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Newberry said.
He said he realized the redistricting commission would not change the maps on Wednesday, and he knows that once the maps go to the General Assembly, the House focuses on its map and the Senate focuses on its map. So, he said, “This is up to the Senate to deal with.”
Paolino issued a statement Friday, saying he was surprised by the “sudden change” to the Senate District 17 boundary.
“I am concerned about the negative impact it will have on the Town of Lincoln over the next 10 years – including a significant expense to the town simply by adding an additional micro-precinct,” Paolino said. “I look forward to understanding and addressing this issue with the Senate Judiciary Committee as well as the reasons for this unusually late proposal before voting on this map.”