Citizens air redistricting concerns

Published 8:00 pm Friday, September 21, 2012

A redistricting plan approved by Brookhaven aldermen would dilute minority voting power and must be rescinded, some community activists claimed at a public hearing on the new ward lines held Thursday evening.

     “We’re here eulogizing justice and fairness,” said Roy Smith at the public hearing, criticizing the aldermen who supported a new map Smith believes does not accurately represent Brookhaven’s black population.

     Lincoln County NAACP President Bernetta Character also spoke against the plan aldermen have approved. She presented an alternative map she said would better represent Brookhaven.

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     The alternative plan was drawn by Hollis Watkins of Southern Echo, an organization devoted to developing grassroots leadership in black communities.

     Watkins’ plan would create four wards with a black voting age population of 60 percent or more: Wards One, Two, Three and Six.

     Wards One, Two and Three are the city’s current minority wards.

     The demographics of Ward Six have been at the center of the redistricting dispute.

     Watkins’ plan gives Ward Six a black voting age population of nearly 66 percent. Under the plan aldermen approved, Ward Six has a black voting age population of almost 47 percent.

     Watkins and Smith emphasized that the 2010 U.S. Census shows blacks with about 54 percent of the city’s total population to a white population of 43 percent.

     Watkins said a ward map showing three black wards and three white wards, as the board-approved map does, is not representative of the city population and thereby dilutes minority voting strength.

     Watkins raised the specter of redistricting techniques historically used to reduce minority voting power. Specifically, he accused the plan approved by aldermen of packing.

     In packing, a large minority majority district is created to confine minority voting strength to that district and prevent minorities voters from having influence in other districts.

     “This map intentionality and purposefully dilutes the minority voting strength,” Watkins said.

     Speaking after the meeting, Smith agreed.

     “They’re trying to manipulate it to keep us under wraps,” he said.

     Aldermen approved the redistricting plan under discussion Sept. 4 by a 6-1 vote, with only Ward Two Alderman Terry Bates dissenting.

     Bates had praise for Watkins’ map Thursday night.

     “I hope we consider this map,” Bates said.

     However, Ward One Alderman Dorsey Cameron pointed out that Watkins’ map would reduce the black population of Ward Three below 65 percent, typically the threshold at which a ward or district is considered a minority district.

     Cameron questioned Watkins about this.

     Watkins said a district of 60 percent or more should be sufficient for a black population to elect a representative of its choosing.

     After the meeting, Watkins said dropping a minority ward below 65 percent would not be an automatic red flag with the Justice Department depending on other demographic factors.

     Watkins lives in Jackson now but is from Lincoln County and was active in the Civil Rights movement. He hasn’t forgotten Brookhaven, though.

     “I keep my eye on Lincoln County,” Watkins said.

     Brookhaven’s redistricting plan must be submitted to the U.S. Justice Department for preclearance before it can be implemented. City attorney Joe Fernald has indicated intent to submit the plan as soon as possible and hopes for approval by Thanksgiving.

     Aldermen did not indicate what consideration, if any, they’ll give to the alternative plan presented Thursday.