City now awaits OK on ward map

Published 9:00 pm Thursday, November 15, 2012

Brookhaven officials have completed submission of the city’s proposed redistricting plan to the U.S. Department of Justice and those officials hope for approval by late December.

     The city has no margin for error, though. Should a complaint be lodged, either by the Justice Department or by a citizen or organization filing suit, the city will be in uncharted territory as to next year’s municipal elections, said City Attorney Joe Fernald.

     “If there’s a problem or a challenge, if something comes up, then we’re inside the time to file for elections,” Fernald said. “Then the question comes up, what plan do we proceed under?”

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     Fernald submitted a map of new ward lines and supporting documents on Oct. 23 to the U.S. Justice Department for preclearance. About 10 days ago, Fernald said he received a request for a copy of the city’s current ward map, something he hadn’t included in the original submission.

     The Justice Department has 60 days to review the new map and determine whether it meets the requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and does not discriminate against minorities or dilute their voting power.

     Under the Voting Rights Act, any changes to voting laws or district maps in Mississippi must receive federal approval due to the state’s history of discriminating against minorities.

     Likely then, word on Brookhaven’s redistricting plan isn’t likely to come before the latter part of December, though a decision could conceivably be issued earlier.

     “There’s no reason they can’t finish it early,” Fernald said, but he added that he doesn’t expect an early decision to happen.

     Trouble could arise if the Justice Department asks for more information, initiating another 60-day review period, or outright rejects the plan.

     Fernald deems the latter possibility unlikely.

     “I’m satisfied it will fly,” Fernald said.

     Consultants with the Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development Agency have also expressed confidence the proposed new map will meet Justice Department muster.

     Fernald’s more concerned about an individual or organization filing suit to block the map.

     Qualifying for next year’s municipal elections begins Jan. 2. If things proceed smoothly, that election will occur under the new map aldermen have put forward. If there’s a legal dispute, the city could be pulled into a legal mire concerning which ward map the election would be conducted under.

     Fernald criticized aldermen for failing to approve a map earlier, thus providing more time to resolve any problems that could arise.

     “There was no reason for it sit all summer and not be acted on,” Fernald said of the redistricting task. “We strung this thing out as long as it could go.”

     The map sent to the Justice Department was approved by aldermen in September on a 6-1 vote. Ward Two Alderman Terry Bates was the lone dissenter.

     Bates has been joined in his criticism by local activists, including Bernetta Character, with the Lincoln County NAACP. Character and Bates contend the map aldermen approved dilutes black voting strength in the city.

     The 2010 census showed blacks as 54 percent of the citywide population, and Bates and Character believe that majority should be reflected in the city wards. Under the plan aldermen approved, three of the city’s six wards have a majority black voting age population.