The Statesboro City Council is expected to decide Tuesday between two proposed maps that redraw the boundaries for the city’s five council districts. But council members Travis Chance and Will Britt both say a map that was not made available to study until Friday afternoon should not be considered because the public has not had a chance to offer input.
The city’s Department of Community Development is redrawing the city’s five council districts to more evenly distribute populations in the wake of 2010 Census results that revealed major growth in Statesboro. To abide by federal laws requiring all individuals’ votes count equally, the city must balance populations across its five districts.
One proposed map was created and two work sessions were held last month with the public invited to look at the maps, ask questions and make suggestions. A second proposed map that changed significantly the district lines for council members Chance, John Riggs and Tommy Blitch was sent to the members Friday afternoon.
“It appears to me it’s the bait and switch,” Chance said. “It appears this is the plan from the beginning. And it appears they’ve shown the public one map and then at the last day this other map shows up. Last year we were in a lawsuit because of the lack of transparency and that we had to make sure that everything we do is above board … this whole process has been tainted from the very beginning. You have members of council that had personal reasons for drawing the districts. They have manipulated the lines and it is the very definition of gerrymandering.”
Interim City Manager Frank Parker said after the second public hearing, the redistricting plan would undergo minor changes as a result of input received from council and the community, prior to being discussed in a work session immediately before City Council’s meeting on Tuesday.
The second map sent out Friday includes changes from the initial map in population of an additional 37 in Blitch’s District 1, 111 in Gary Lewis’s District 2 and an additional 164 in Riggs’s District 4. Britt’s District 3 is reduced by 203, while Chance’s District 5 loses 109.
Map 2 takes some of the North Main constituents of Blitch and puts them in Lewis’s district. Blitch gains areas across Northside Drive and into communities in Chance’s district in Map 1. Britt gains some areas north of Savannah Avenue, but loses the Wendwood area to Riggs. Riggs also gained the area known as the Market District from Fair Road to Brampton Ave. Chance’s district is the most oddly shaped and includes a sliver of a stretch along the bypass to keep his district contiguous.
“They have cut me down so far in Map 2 that I have a ditch, a ditch that connects me to another part of my district a half mile away,” Chance said. “If that’s not a bottleneck, gerrymandering situation, I don’t know what it is.”
Britt estimated that in Chance’s district may have seen only a loss of 109 in population between proposed Map 1 and Map 2, but perhaps as many as 3,000 residents were shifted either in or out when looking at the changes.
Riggs said he is OK with the changes proposed in Map 2 for his district.
“I had requests to include Wendwood and I like the Fourth district going all the way to Brampton Avenue. I had some business owners in that area express their hope that they would be in my district, so I tried to accommodate them,” he said. “I did my best to get everyone in my district to get input into it.”
A vote Tuesday is needed because a second reading and vote is required to pass changes to district lines and that is scheduled for June 21. For the redistricting changes to be in place for the Nov. 8 city election, the city must receive approval from the US Department of Justice for the changes and the new proposed map must be submitted by the end of the month.
Britt, Chance and Riggs said if that deadline is not met, the current district boundaries would remain in place for the election. Britt, Chance and Lewis face re-election in November.
Riggs said he would consider both maps at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“I am comfortable voting on the issue Tuesday because we have two readings,” he said. “If after the first reading, people in my district call me and say ‘John we have serious misgivings about it,’ then we’ll look at it again.”
But Chance and Britt said only Map 1 should be considered.
“I was anticipating that since we were doing everything we could to be transparent and be up front with the community, and since Map 1 was the only map the public was privy to and was the only map shown to the public at two work sessions, I was under the impression that map was the only one under consideration,” Chance said. “But we’ve had two to three weeks of certain elected officials tweaking their districts to suit them and not suit the community. We’re going to have to discuss a map that never should even be brought up.”
“I think Map 1,” Britt said. “I’m not sure the districts drawn in Map 2 accurately reflects the wishes of the citizens. I would have to support Map 1 based on the fact Map 1 is the one that’s been advertised and shown out there to the public.”
Lewis said he hasn’t studied the changes closely yet in Map 2, but he was leaning to Map 1.
"I want to hear the discussion Tuesday and study Map 2 more closely,” Lewis said. “I’ll make a decision then.”
A work session inside council chambers of City Hall for the council and public to ask questions about the second proposed map is scheduled for Tuesday morning at 8:30, 30 minutes prior to the regular meeting at 9.
“The work session is just lip service to the public just to say they did it,” Chance said.
James Healy can be reached at (912) 489-9402.