Public hearing on redistricting a good decision

Published 7:30 pm Sunday, January 27, 2013

Redistricting rolled onto the agenda of Lincoln County supervisors last week, and they appear to be steering the process in a positive direction.

At a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, supervisors heard a brief introduction to the once-a-decade redistricting process by a consultant, Bill Rigby, and then scheduled a public hearing.

On Feb. 19 at 6 p.m., supervisors invite their constituents to offer comments, thoughts or input as to the future shape of district lines.

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After the release of each U.S. Census, district lines must be redrawn to ensure the population of each supervisor’s district in the county is roughly equivalent.

Also a significant factor in Lincoln County, a 1983 court order requires at least one supervisor’s district in the county have a minority population of 65 percent or greater.

Once Rigby has guided supervisors to produce a map that meets the legal criteria and satisfies supervisors, the board has indicated plans to hold a second public hearing to solicit comment on the proposed lines.

Redistricting is a technical and math-intensive process. However, it retains significant public interest. Abuse of redistricting powers has historically been used to curtail minority-voting rights and to keep certain elected figures or political parties in power that might otherwise face a stiff contest at the ballot box.

The apparent commitment by Lincoln County supervisors to inclusion of the public throughout the process reflects well on the board and contrasts with the way Brookhaven aldermen conducted their own redistricting process last year.

Aldermen held no initial public hearing. Instead, they discussed new ward lines intermittently throughout 2012 before approving a plan in September on a 6-1 vote. Then, Brookhaven officials were quick to point out that a public hearing on new lines wasn’t legally mandated.

That’s true. No law requires it, and Rigby and county attorney Bob Allen informed supervisors of that fact last week.

However, both men were quick to underscore the importance of public involvement.

Drawing on his past experience guiding redistricting plans through approval by the U.S. Justice Department, Allen recommended formal public hearings.

“I’ve found the Justice Department smiles on it,” Allen said.

Rigby offered the same view.

Aldermen did ultimately schedule such a hearing. Various dissenters to the proposed plan spoke up. Aldermen went on to adopt the plan.

But questions about the transparency of the process cropped up during a requisite Justice Department review of the new lines.

City attorney Joe Fernald had to submit to the Justice Department a number of additional items, including newspaper coverage of work sessions and public meetings, to show city residents had the opportunity to participate in the process.

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

While aldermen don’t appear to have abused their redistricting powers – at least the U.S. Justice Department ultimately didn’t think so – they still exhibited needless ambivalence toward formal public discussion.

Supervisors seem ready to avoid this pitfall.