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City may change voting districts
Proposal would create three district and two at-large seats
Gary Lewis mugWeb
Gary Lewis
    The Statesboro City Council will take up discussion again of plans to change the boundaries of the city's voting districts during its regular meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m.
    The plan under consideration would create three districts with elected representatives plus two at-large seats and the mayor, which would be elected citywide.
    City Manager George Wood said that although city redistricting is only now coming into the public eye, it has been in the works for a couple months.
    "This started back when (Councilman) Gary (Lewis) called about the districting during the election (in November)," Wood said. "He called the Department of Justice, he called me, he called (City Attorney) Sam Brannen," said Wood. "What you're seeing is the culmination. I don't want you to get the impression that this was done in two weeks time."
    Lewis said he and other community members expressed concern that, if he had lost his re-election bed to Nathan Queen, there would be no minority representative on the city council and be out of compliance with Justice Department guidelines regarding minority representation.
    According to Brannen, there was no official notice from the Department of Justice stating that the city was out of compliance with any rules.
    "No, not to my knowledge and I believe if such existed I would have had knowledge of it," Brannen said. "Gary has had various conversations with them, but whether he called them or they called him, I do not know."

A new map
    Plans for changes to the voting district boundaries were drawn up by Wood and City Clerk Judy McCorkle during a visit to the Carl Vinson Institute in Atlanta in mid-January. The three-district, two at-large plan is favored by Mayor Bill Hatcher and Councilman Lewis.
    Two other plans, generated by Councilman Will Britt also at the Vinson Institute, may be considered at the meeting. One would redraw the five districts, while the other would have four districts with one at-large seat. Both would increase the minority percentage in Lewis' district.
    Britt said he had the alternative plans drawn up, in part, because he didn't like the way the mayor and city manager decided to redraw a voting map without the knowledge of every council member.
    "My first objection is that I was not involved and having talked to (Councilman) Travis Chance, neither was he," Britt said. "Redrawing my district without consulting my constituents is a slap in the face. You should involve the councilman who lives in the affected neighborhood."
    Wood said there would be no public hearing at Tuesday's council meeting since there's no requirement to have one, the mayor saw no reason for one and there was not consensus by the council to have one.

The process
    To start the redistricting process, the city council would need to agree on a map and vote on it at two meetings. Then they would need approval from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights division, followed by approval from both houses of the Georgia state legislature. All changes to the city charter, which is required for redistricting, need legislative approval.
    According to DOJ Section 5 rules, the city, state and DOJ must consider only population data from the 2000 Census along with any population annexed into the city since 2000 when considering a new voting map. Since 2000, the city has annexed in only 400 people - 78 black - spread over multiple districts.
    Districts are required to be in compliance with the "one person one vote" requirements of the U.S. Constitution. According to Jeff Lanier, Legislative Counsel for the State of Georgia, that means each elected official should represent approximately the same amount of people in his or her district, with certain variances allowed. He said there are two reasons to redistrict, other than to balance out districts after a census.
    "If the redistricting plan put into effect at the beginning of the decade is found unconstitutional or inappropriate for some reason, then there would be a need to redraw the lines," Lanier said. "The only other reason someone wants to redraw the lines because they feel their community of interest is being split and they think it would be more appropriate for the line to go somewhere else, but there is no requirement that comes up since the census numbers don't change and we only use official census numbers in doing the redistricting."
    He also said, other than for census reasons (changes in population), the legislative delegation must actually redraw the lines and have them approved by the Georgia House and Senate then signed by the governor.

DOJ concerns
    Stephanie Celandine, Senior Civil Rights Analyst for the DOJ Voter Rights Division listed the items the city must include in the submission packet for Justice Department approval.
    "We'll need a map of old and new districts," she said. "We would need to know the racial make-up now and as they're redrawn. It's probably going to be a little difficult since it's 2008 and you'll be working with eight-year-old Census data. We would need to know who voted for it on the city council, how it was advertised, what kind of public meetings there were."
    Celandine wondered if they're was a compelling reason to redistrict less than two years before the next Census starts, since using 2000 census data would make it hard to get an accurate picture of Statesboro's current population. She was asked it if was unusual to redistrict so close to another the 2010 Census.
    "Very much so," she said. "And what we're going to be looking at is District 1 and District 2, which are 55 percent black and 62.9 percent black (in the 200 Census. So, we're going to be looking to make sure they don't decrease those numbers to a point where black vote can't elect at those levels. We would be looking at the effects of the redistricting on those two majority black districts."
    Considering the proposed at-large districts, she said the DOJ would have to look at the ability to elect a minority candidate in an at-large spot.
    According to DOJ statistics, more than 1,600 counties and municipalities redistricted in the two years after the 2000 Census, while less than 70 communities submitted redistricting plans in the two years before the Census.

Local reaction
    Bulloch NAACP President Pearl Brown and eight other unnamed community members met with Hatcher, Wood and Lewis on Thursday to look at the city's proposal. Though she was unaware of alternative maps until a Wednesday discussion with the Herald, the community members were shown Britt's maps.
    "We liked the one that the city had," said Brown. "We feel it would give more people the opportunity to run for office. It just looks like it would be a better plan. Since the city of Statesboro has grown so, when our next census comes in 2010, all of this is going to have to be looked at again anyway."
    Brown said she was satisfied that going through the redistricting process twice in three years was in the best interests of the city.
    "That would be fine, but I don't see the problem doing it now and then doing it again," said Brown. "If that were the case (that redistricting must happen again after the 2010 census), then there wasn't any need to draw up any of the maps - the city map or the two alternative maps."
    Britt agreed with part of Brown's assessment.
    "We all agree we have to redraw these lines again in 2010. This is being done clearly to be in effect before the next election," said Britt. "This is a waste of tax dollars."
    Lewis agreed that the city will have to go through the process again in two years and was asked why the city should do it now and then.
    "Of course, it will be revisited in 2010 when the new census comes out," said Lewis. "It won't be changed now. It won't be changed until 2010. We can't change anything until 2010, this vote just shows we approve of it."
    Councilman Lewis said this is ultimately about control of the council.
    "This is about who's trying to control the council. (Britt) wanted Travis Chance and Nathan Queen to replace me and replace (former Councilman) John Morris. Morris got beat and I didn't," said Lewis. "This is about control; I'm not going to give up my seat like that. I called the DOJ, I stand by that."

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