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City considers redistricting plans
Councilman Gary Lewis (District 2) addresses City Council on proposed changes to voting districts during Wednesday's meeting at City Hall.
    Statesboro City Manager George Wood proposed a plan Wednesday that would redraw the city’s five council districts and fundamentally change the way citizens elect council members.
    About 20 people attended the Statesboro City Council work session at City Hall, where Wood, who announced his resignation last month effective in late February, explained his plan. The proposal would redraw lines to create three city districts with representatives elected in each district, while two at-large representatives and a mayor would run city wide.
    Wood said this plan would give each citizen the chance to vote for four members of the governing body — the councilman in their district, both at-large seats and the mayor.
    "This would give each citizen double the impact on the governing body,” Wood said. “In that respect, it gives each citizen far more control over his city government."
    The catalyst for studying redistricting was a request from Councilman Gary Lewis made during a January council meeting. Lewis claims the Department of Justice told him he is no longer in a majority minority district, which would violate sections of the voting rights act and potentially expose the city to lawsuits. Because Lewis' election race was so close, winning by 56 votes, there was concern that there would be no minority representation on the council.
    "I think the issue is, when you look at the historical pattern we've had one of five voting members be a minority," said Wood. "The problem [the DOJ] was worried about is that we were fixing to be zero of five."
    Attorney Sam Brannen said that situation could open the city up to possible litigation from a citizen.
    "The danger in not fixing this after you've found this is that any citizen can bring suit against you and force you to reapportion or Justice can do it for you," said Brannen.
    Under Justice Department guidelines, a city must have a district where the majority of citizens are minorities — called a majority/minority district. This is so that a minority group will have the opportunity to elect someone from their segment of the population.
    "We are all elected by district but we represent everybody," said Lewis.
    According to a DOJ senior civil rights analyst using 2000 census data, the city has two majority/minority districts. District 1, primarily on the north side of town and represented by Tommy Blitch, has a 55.1 minority population. District 2, primarily on the west side of town and represented by Gary Lewis, has a 62.9 percent minority population.
    Wood’s plan for three district seats, and two at-large seats essentially would mean there was only one majority/minority district. Mayor Bill Hatcher said he didn't think that would be an issue with the Justice Department.
    "Though we've had for a long time two minority districts, there's only been one district that's elected an African-American and that's Gary district. In my view, we're really not changing it," Hatcher said.
    Two alternative plans were presented by Councilman Will Britt. One plan keeps the current five district system, adjusting lines to account for new growth in the city and keep Lewis in a predominately minority district. The other plan created four districts and one at-large seat.
    The council could not vote on a plan at Wednesday’s meeting, but members said they would discuss the matter at their next council meeting – Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. According to City Attorney Sam Brannen, the city council does not need to hold a public hearing before redrawing district lines.
    Asked if the council would hold a public hearing on redistricting, Hatcher said, "I'm not sure what we're going to do yet."
    "This is a struggle to see who will control council," Lewis said.    
    Phil Boyum may be reached at 912-489-9454.
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