Redistricting plan wins OK from aldermen

Published 8:00 pm Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Brookhaven aldermen have accepted a redistricting plan for the city after months of debate and uncertainty but must still hold a public hearing and formally adopt the new map.

     On a 6-1 vote at Tuesday night’s board meeting, aldermen accepted new ward lines drawn and presented by Ward Five Alderman D.W. Maxwell.

     Only Ward Two Alderman Terry Bates voted against the plan. He accused the map of diluting the city’s black voting strength and implied it hearkened back to a segregated past.

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     “Brookhaven is not 50/50,” Bates said. “Somebody’s got to say it. This map shows the city 50/50. That’s back in the ’60s.”

     Despite Bates’ characterization of the map, his fellow black aldermen supported the plan: Dorsey Cameron of Ward One made the motion to accept the plan and Mary Wilson of Ward Three seconded the motion.

     Next, the city must hold a public hearing and then formally adopt the plan before submitting it to the U.S. Department of Justice for review, said Wirt Peterson with the Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District.

     “We usually schedule those within 10 days,” said Peterson of the public hearing.

     Peterson and CMPDD were hired to assist the city with the redistricting process.

     Under the Voting Rights Act, redistricting plans in Mississippi and other areas in the Deep South must be precleared to ensure no discrimination occurs against racial minorities.

     City attorney Joe Fernald said he would like to submit the map to the Justice Department by early October.

     Fernald said he’s overseen the submission of three redistricting plans. As each plan was approved within 45 days, he’s optimistic the city can receive approval by Thanksgiving.

     Qualifying for next year’s municipal elections begins in January, adding some urgency to the process.

     “People need to know where they’re running,” Fernald said.

     However, Bates said he’ll request the Department of Justice look closely at the map.

     Bates prefers a redistricting plan that increased black voting strength in Ward Six. Further, he accused the plan aldermen accepted of diluting black voting strength, not just in Ward Six but citywide.

     He pointed out that while 65 percent is the threshold for black voting strength in a minority ward, some of the black wards had black populations as high as 87 percent.

     “You’ve got blacks stacked in One, Two and Three,” Bates said, referencing a redistricting practice generally called packing whereby districts with very high percentages of minority voters are created to confine their influence.

     However, Bates’ fellow black aldermen have not seemed concerned about the specter of packing. Wilson’s black voting percentages have hovered around 67 percent across various proposed maps, and she explicitly requested this number be made higher.

     In a July interview, Cameron said he wasn’t comfortable with the black wards unless they had voting strength of 75 percent or more.

     Beyond his complaints with the way the new redistricting plan handles minority strength, Bates complained about the shape of Ward Two under the plan. Currently rather compact, Ward Two would become much more sprawling under the accepted plan.

     “My ward goes across the tracks and gets people I’ve never had before,” Bates said. “Ward Two has never looked this way. This map has destroyed Ward Two.”

     This drew a response from Cameron, who had objected to the shape of his ward under the preferred plan of Bates.

     “When mine was the one being destroyed, you didn’t say anything,” Cameron said.

     The map aldermen accepted is much more balanced than some previous maps, with most wards differing from a completely equal division of the population by no more than five to seven people.