Independent redistricting panel tables director hiring decision

Members raise concerns about some candidates’ right-wing views

By: - November 20, 2020 9:46 am

Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission meets via Zoom in 2020 | YouTube

A pool of six finalists interviewed Thursday with the hope of leading the state’s autonomous Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is set to finish drawing new congressional and state House and Senate district lines by November 2021.

The executive director will assist the randomly-selected panel of citizens with legal, strategic, administrative, staffing and managerial duties throughout the process.

Michigan’s district maps are some of the worst in the country when it comes to gerrymandering. The goal of Proposal 2 of 2018, which created the independent commission to redraw the lines, is to have a nonpartisan group of citizens to handle redistricting rather than politicians and special interests.

With this nonpartisan goal in mind, some concerns were raised Thursday about two of the openly right-wing candidates following their interviews.

After some confusion with several members wondering if they would have to pick an executive director in the last 15 minutes of their meeting, the group agreed to share initial impressions of candidates. They also planned to schedule another meeting between now and Dec. 3 to narrow down the field further and come closer to a final decision. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Heated mayoral race busts through East Grand Rapids ‘bubble’

In the meantime, the initial favorite appears to be Suann Courtright Hammersmith, the president of a consulting firm for nonprofits. Hammersmith received the most favorable mentions by members: eight total, from three Republicans, two Democrats and three independents, who all said her experience would be valuable for the commission.

Sheryl Mitchell, the city administrator for Lathrup Village, received the next-most favorable mentions from members. Three Democrats and two independents complimented her government experience, while Democrat Brittni Kellom said a lot of the other candidates besides Mitchell were “evasive with their political affiliations.”

Brandon Brice, a conservative political commentator and columnist, also received five favorable mentions all around, but Kellom and independent Rebecca Szetela both voiced concerns about his ties with a conservative radio station. Szetela said she would be concerned about what the public would think if he was brought on as executive director.

Brice’s deeper ties with Republican politics went unmentioned. That includes a position as director of education and African American Affairs for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.

After working for Christie, Brice was hired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a real estate property representative. He was fired five months later when Gawker published a story about Brice drunkenly approaching one of their bloggers and making unwanted sexually explicit comments to her.

Janette Phillips, owner of a consulting firm for Michigan nonprofits, was liked by four members across the political board.

Judge dismisses GOP suits against independent redistricting commission

Amna Seibold was another controversial pick. She received two strongly positive mentions from Republican Douglas James Clark and independent Anthony Eid, but Democrat Dustin Joseph Witjes said he scoured the internet about Seibold and did not like what he saw.

“I will not be able to look past the negative public comment [about] Amna, to be honest,” Witjes said.

Seibold is currently chair of the Ferris State University Board of Trustees, appointed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. She previously was mayor of East Grand Rapids, city commissioner of East Grand Rapids and director of Trinity Health’s Department of Pathology. She holds openly conservative views and has been a consistent donor to Republican causes.

“It’s not just the web comments,” independent Rebecca Szetela added. “Thirteen out of the 15 people who worked with [Seibold] in city government, whether it be city commissioner or public school board, opposed her election in 2019 and it’s all public information you can look at yourself. So I would not be able to get behind her.”

Steven Terry Lett, an independent, chose to withhold his opinions before doing another review of the candidates.

The panel is receiving scheduling help from the Michigan Department of State, but is fully autonomous otherwise and will be deciding on an executive director without any input from the department. 

The new executive director is expected to be onboarded by Dec. 3.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.