Unsatisfied by a pair of proposals outlining changes to the city’s five voting districts, Statesboro City Council rejected a motion to move forward with redistricting Tuesday in its first scheduled meeting of June.
By a vote of 4-1, council members agreed to table a decision regarding the city’s future districts, opting instead to continue working with city staff to reach an agreeable solution.
Sentiments regarding the two map proposals drawn up by the city’s Department of Community Development — meant to reapportion district populations in the wake of 2010 Census figures that revealed major growth in select districts — varied with council members. The group of representatives could only agree that additional planning is needed.
“I recommend that we put off a vote today in hopes of everyone getting a chance to look at the maps and be satisfied,” said Councilman John Riggs.
“The issue is: we are divided on these new maps,” said Councilman Travis Chance. “I think — right now — if this is the best we have to look at, then we don’t need to rush any further. [Council] needs to load up, go to the apportionment office in Atlanta and sit down to draw maps together – at same time, with no staff; just us working to do what is best for the community.”
Council was presented the two district proposals after weeks of work by the city’s Department of Community Development and City Manager Frank Parker to design new districts that balance the city’s population.
An initial proposal was presented to council and reviewed during two public forums in weeks leading up to Tuesday’s meeting. The preliminary plan was met with general satisfaction by members of council and the public, but left open to suggestions for improvement.
Last Friday afternoon, Community Development staff unveiled a second, updated district map for council to examine.
The new proposal, according to Mandi Cody, director of Community Development, was created to reflect feedback received by council and members of the public.
During a work session to discuss the redistricting proposals prior to Council’s meeting, Chance and Councilman Tommy Blitch expressed concern regarding the new map.
“What select councilmen have you worked with on this second map; because what I asked you to do, and what Councilman Blitch asked you to do, you did not do,” said Chance.
Despite asking for additional neighborhoods be included in their respective districts, Chance and Blitch lost voters, where other councilmen were awarded their requests, he said.
“I had not one bit of input,” said Blitch. “And it is kind of disturbing that it is this way. I just don’t like the way the map is drawn and I said so at the public meetings. I don’t think we need to send anything forward unless we know that we can stand by what we have done.”
Cody acknowledged that the newest proposal was reflective mostly of requests made to her by Councilmen Riggs and Britt.
“I was not aware until last week that [Councilman Chance] or Councilman Blitch were not involved in the drawing of the maps,” said Britt, who encouraged everyone to be more involved as the process continues. “I would like to ask every councilman to, within the next few days, visit Mandi’s office to discuss whatever your concerns are. We have to work in the spirit of cooperation to get this done.”
The lone councilman preferring to proceed with a vote Tuesday, and voting against tabling the issue, was Councilman Gary Lewis.
Lewis, who favors the original proposal, fears the failure of council to approve new districts will result in the city implementing its current districts for November’s general election – which, according to the councilman, could result in the city’s only minority representative being voted out of office.
“We can sit and argue all day, but I am ready to vote,” said Lewis. “If we don’t get this done, we go back to the same districts we had last election. I could be easily defeated, and I don’t want that to happen. If it does happen, I’ll file a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ), because it’s not fair.”
Cody said in order to follow a timeline allowing new districts be implemented for November’s election, a new map needed to be approved by Tuesday.
Redistricting plans must be awarded preclearance by the Department of Justice by August 29 for the city to utilize its reshaped districts.
Because the department reserves a 60-day time frame in which to make decisions, Statesboro must submit a final plan prior to June 29, she said.
As a result of Tuesday’s vote, a final proposal would not be submitted to the Department of Justice before the June deadline.
The city can still submit a final map with hopes of receiving DOJ approval prior to the August 29 qualifying date, but will now have to plan for using its existing districts.
Staff Attorney Michael Graves will submit a waiver to the Department of Justice, asking the city be allowed to use current districts if the need arises, he said.
According to Chance, council may be close to agreement and could possibly make a decision in its June 21 meeting.
“I don’t think we are far off with map one,” he said. “With some minor tweaking, everyone can be happy. The map has to be a reflection of the entire community.”
Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454.