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Redistricting decision delayed

     The U.S. Justice Department has delayed into the new year a verdict on Brookhaven’s new ward lines, and with qualifying for city elections beginning next week, potential aldermen candidates are left in limbo.

     A proposed set of new ward lines for the city approved earlier this year by aldermen on a 6-1 vote has been under review at the Justice Department since October.

     However, the Justice Department’s recent requests for additional information from the city have pushed the deadline for a verdict back from Dec. 27 until Jan. 8, said the city’s attorney, Joe Fernald.

     “They had a great deal of information they needed that was not available in the original submission,” Fernald said.

     In all, Fernald said he submitted approximately 90 additional pages of documents to the Justice Department by request beyond the original packet of information accompanying the city’s proposed ward lines.

     Fernald said he found out Wednesday about the altered deadline.

     The Jan. 8 deadline will come nearly a week after candidates for municipal elections may begin qualifying on Jan. 2.

     Some offices remain unaffected. The offices of mayor, alderman at large, city clerk and police chief are voted on by the entire city and do not run by ward.

     However, potential candidates need to know what ward lines will be used for next year’s elections in order to know what ward they qualify to run in.

     In some cases, the difference between current ward lines and the proposed new map are significant.

     Much of the northern part of what’s currently Ward Five would move into Ward Six under the pending plan, while Ward Two’s southern half would move into Ward Three and its western border take in part of what’s currently Ward Six.

     If the Jan. 8 deadline brings Justice Department approval, called preclearance, Fernald doesn’t feel the election will be impacted.

     Candidates have until March 8 to qualify for this year’s municipal elections.

     If the Justice Department denies preclearance to the city’s ward map, further confusion could arise.

     The city would have to make revisions of some kind to the proposed redistricting plan.

     Fernald said he doesn’t know how the election would be handled in such an event.

     “We’ve never faced this before,” Fernald said.

     Questions and requests for additional documents by the Justice Department have focused on the process by which the city reached its proposed ward map.

     “The questions seems to be more about the process,” Fernald said. “They’ve never said anything about the ultimate plan to me. (They’ve) been more concerned about how we got where we got.”

     Fernald said he’s sent the Justice Department copies of election returns going back several years, copies of minutes of board meetings and articles from The Daily Leader about work sessions and meetings where redistricting was discussed.

     Fernald said the last packet of documents he sent was submitted about a week before Christmas.

     Since then, there’s been only silence.

     “There’s been no more requests for information,” Fernald said.

     Lines for municipal wards, county districts, congressional districts, etc. must be redrawn after each decade’s census to reflect population shifts and equalize the population across districts or wards.

     In many Deep South states, including Mississippi, these redistricting plans must be approved by the Justice Department to ensure they don’t weaken the voting power of racial minorities.