City ward map wins federal OK

Published 5:12 pm Friday, January 4, 2013

Some Christmas presents come late.

     The U.S. Justice Department apparently precleared Brookhaven ward lines in December, but city officials didn’t hear of it until Thursday morning.

     Federal approval ends some uncertainty about ward lines that had hovered over the first few days of the qualifying period for this year’s municipal elections.

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     “Now we can get on with the election,” said Mayor Les Bumgarner.

     A Dec. 18 letter of approval was reportedly sent by the Justice Department but still hasn’t been received by the city.

     “I’m sure the letter’s gone out, we just haven’t gotten it,” said city attorney Joe Fernald.

     Fernald said a Justice Department representative called him Thursday morning to see if the letter had arrived. Upon learning it hadn’t, a faxed copy was transmitted to Fernald.

     The city originally submitted its redistricting proposal October 24. By request of the Justice Department, Fernald provided an additional 90 pages of supplemental information through Dec. 13.

     Having heard nothing from the Justice Department since then, Fernald said he had assumed final word was pending.

     “I thought we would get an email transmission that we’d gotten approved since everything else was sent in by email,” said Fernald.

     Opponents of the plan could still file a lawsuit seeking to halt its implementation, but Fernald said he thinks it unlikely that will happen.

     City aldermen intermittently discussed redistricting throughout 2012 until finally approving a plan in September on a 6-1 vote. The lone dissenter in that final vote, Ward Two Alderman Terry Bates, had no comment about the map’s preclearance when contacted Thursday.

     Another vocal opponent of the redistricting plan now in place, Lincoln County NAACP President Bernetta Character, reiterated her opposition.

     “The bottom line is, it depletes the black vote,” Character said.

     Under the plan approved by aldermen and precleared by the Justice Department, there are three wards with a black voting age population of about 70 percent or greater, Wards One, Two and Three.

     There are two majority white wards, Wards Four and Five.

     Ward Six has a total population with a black majority, but a majority of the voting age population is white, about 51 percent.

     Character, Bates and others had pushed for a black voting majority in Ward Six.

     Additional information requested by the Justice Department included copies of election returns for Ward Six, Fernald said.

     Character does feel she earned at least a partial victory by pushing for a public hearing on the map.

     “The city had to go through the process,” Character said. “The city found out that the people of Brookhaven are not going to sit back.”

     After the plan was approved in September, city leaders had initially appeared to waver on whether to hold a public hearing to gather public comment on the proposed plan. Voices throughout the community urged a public hearing.

     “They had passed the map and didn’t have the public’s interest at heart,” Character said.

     However, with preclearance now in hand, Fernald feels the city demonstrated to the Justice Department that the redistricting process was transparent and open to public input.

     “It was clear there was input. There was sufficient visibility,” Fernald said. “I think that’s what the concern was.”

     Fernald submitted to the Justice Department documents including newspaper coverage of the deliberation process and meeting minutes.

     Looking back on the process, Bumgarner said a plan probably could have been approved earlier in the year, but he stopped short of identifying any specific flaws with the way city leaders approached redistricting this year.

     “The main thing was to have it in by the deadline,” the mayor said.

     Cities must redraw ward lines every 10 years using the latest Census data.

     In Mississippi and other primarily Deep South areas, those redistricting plans must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure minority rights aren’t abridged.