In 2005, the Statesboro City Council heard about problems involving alcohol at a few of the clubs near the Georgia Southern University campus. Several restaurant/bars were offering free drink specials to entice students to their establishments. Pictures of underage students with funnels held above their heads offered powerful images that demanded action to stop abuses at these clubs.
However, the council chose to attack the sale of alcohol at all Statesboro restaurants instead of focusing on the real problem of underage drinking at a few clubs. They passed ridiculous changes to the alcohol ordinance that had almost no public support. Council members were forced to back off some of the most impractical ones a few months later.
Like the overreaction to alcohol abuse by a few, the city council seems bent on repeating its mistakes of the past with a rush to judgment on a plan that would redraw the city’s five council districts. A proposal by outgoing City Manager George Wood would fundamentally change the way Statesboro elects council members. But with an official Census count coming in 2010 that requires Statesboro to redistrict, we see no compelling reason to change voting lines at this time.
In general, however, if the council believes there’s a problem with the current district lines, then they should bring it up for discussion and further study. That’s responsible government. But that’s not what’s happening.
After a couple of passing remarks about redistricting in January council meetings, Wood visited the Carl Vinson Institute in Atlanta. A group from the institute helped him come up with a proposal that 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. Starting a serious discussion and then launching a thorough study is a sensible way to come up with the best plan to change voting districts in the city. In fact, looking at a proposed map from the respected Carl Vinson Institute is good place to start such a discussion. But, again, that’s not what’s happening.
At the Feb. 6 city council meeting, Wood presented the map and plan like it was the beginning and end of discussion. Almost as a preventative action, two alternative plans were presented by Councilman Will Britt, which were received almost with disdain.
The redistricting plan is on the agenda of Tuesday’s meeting and a vote to change the charter is scheduled. No public hearing is required nor planned. We think it would be best to take up redistricting after the 2010 Census and abandon current redistricting efforts. But at a minimum, council members and the mayor should table any action on redistricting to allow sufficient time to study and think over more options. Making such an important and far-reaching decision requires a lot more debate and research than a couple of weeks and one map/proposal to choose from.
It is curious why Mayor Bill Hatcher and some on the council feel such urgency to change voting districts. Council member Gary Lewis, who is black, said the U.S. Department of Justice told him in a phone call he is no longer in a majority minority district, which would violate sections of the voting rights act. But the Justice Department has sent no official notification of possible violations. In fact, based on 2000 Census figures Statesboro has two districts where minorities are the majority population – Lewis in District 2 and Tommy Blitch in District 1.
Since no annexation of a large population has occurred nor has the city conducted a census count itself, the Department of Justice would use 2000 figures to determine the minority population of Statesboro’s districts. Justice officials do not use population estimates.
A new Census is scheduled for 2010, after which Statesboro and hundreds of other cities would be required to redraw voting districts. Since Councilman Lewis’ seat is not up for re-election until 2011, Statesboro would remain in compliance with Department of Justice minority guidelines. The city then can address any issues in drawing a minority district using real Census figures before Lewis’ seat is up for election. The bottom line: We have not heard a convincing argument why Statesboro should redistrict twice – now and then again after the 2010 Census.
We are not going to speculate on any possible ulterior motives Statesboro elected officials may have for ramming through a redistricting plan right now. Nevertheless, one motive should override all others – doing what’s best for every resident of the city. Citizens from Georgia Southern students to downtown shopkeepers to the residents of Savannah Avenue and Whitesville deserve no less.
With rapid growth at Georgia Southern and steady growth in the city overall, there is little question Statesboro will need to redistrict to better reflect population demographics. But, right now, we believe the council should wait for 2010 Census numbers, come up with several plans based on thorough study and public input and then adopt the fairest redistricting plan that meets legal guidelines.