Ward-line plan still in need of public input

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, September 9, 2012

Brookhaven aldermen continue to pursue a rather dubious course when it comes to settling on a ward-line redistricting plan for the city.

     At Tuesday night’s board meeting, aldermen gave their blessing to a new ward-line map that now must win the blessing of the U.S. Department of Justice. Due to provisions in the Voting Rights Act, the department’s OK is needed to ensure minority-voting strength is not diluted.

     Aldermen have spent much of this year in an on-again, off-again pursuit of a redistricting plan that was suitable to all board members. All the while, the board has known that getting federal approval of the plan would be an involved process and the plan must be accepted in time for municipal election candidate qualifying that starts in January.

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     After an April trip by the board to Jackson to meet with redistricting consultants, a plan appeared to have been agreed upon by all present. Then May saw the brakes applied. Efforts to arrive at another new ward-line map then were put on hold until last month.

     In August, talks resumed and new lines of contention surfaced. Disagreements centered around potential movement of areas from one ward to another and the racial composition of some wards, particularly Ward Six.

     Following more discussion, aldermen have arrived at a map that is nearly perfect in terms of having an ideal population of 2,086 people in each ward. The board approved the map 6-1 during Tuesday’s meeting.

     Under the proposal, no ward is more than nine people away from the ideal population. Ward Six is the most populous at 2,095, and Ward Two is the least populous at 2,077.

     According to Ward Five Alderman D.W. Maxwell, who was instrumental in brokering the redistricting proposal, the map maintains a black majority in Ward Six. Under the proposal, four of the city’s six wards would be majority black.

     However, the Ward Six black percentage was not high enough for Ward Two Alderman Terry Bates, who was the lone dissenting vote Tuesday night. Bates maintains that current population trends, although not reflected in the 2010 Census numbers used to draw the map, should have been factored in to boost the black population percentage in Ward Six.

     Bates was also upset that the boundaries of his ward appear to shift the most. Under new ward lines, his territory would resemble a “U” in the east-central portion of the city.

     City officials are now preparing to submit the proposed map to federal officials for their OK. City Attorney Joe Fernald would like to have the submission in by early October.

     What remains to be seen at this point, however, is whether the public will have any direct opportunity for input into map plans.

     A public hearing on the redistricting map is not a legal requirement, and aldermen are planning to wait until their Sept. 18 meeting to consider whether to schedule one. The board’s hesitancy is puzzling.

     Throughout the redistricting process, aldermen have gone to great lengths to agree on a map that is acceptable to each other. However, they appear to have forgotten the citizens – the public – they have been elected to represent.

     Should aldermen opt against a public hearing, the Department of Justice could remind them of the importance of such gatherings if the federal elections officials have any questions about the city’s submission.

     Public involvement – or at least the appearance of it – can go a long way toward winning federal blessings for Brookhaven’s plan.

     Next year, the aldermen who decide to seek another term will definitely be seeking the public’s involvement in the election process, so why not now, too?

     At this late date, failure in winning federal approval could be another stumbling block in a redistricting process that has already seen more than its fair share.