The council chambers were packed Tuesday evening as the Statesboro City Council debated a plan to redistrict the five council seats. After a motion to deny the redistricting request was offered by Councilman Will Britt, Councilman Gary Lewis moved to table the discussion, ultimately approved by a three to two vote.
Councilmen Lewis, Tommy Blitch and Joe Brannen voted to table while Councilman Britt and Travis Chance voted against. They had sought to deny the request and end the redistricting question.
Lewis explained why he motioned to table, a move supported by local and regional NAACP representatives.
“A second opinion was given by the NAACP and a civil rights lawyer,” said Lewis. “It was a good plan, but two (majority/minority) districts would be combined into one district which would dilute the minority vote. The lawyer didn’t think that was fair to do that. So, that’s why I tabled it, just for study.”
The city had proposed to redraw city’s five districts into three districts and create two at-large seats, which, like the mayor, would have been elected by voters across the city. City Manager George Wood and City Clerk Judy McCorkle drew up the proposal druing a visit to the Carl Vinsons Institute for Government in January.
Reaction to the council’s decision was positive.
“Well, I think it gives everyone a chance to think about what happened, at the same time - if I was a councilman - I would have supported a vote to wait until the 2010 census data come out,” said Georgia Southern University Student Government Association President Jon Simpson. “I’m glad they’ll take more time to discuss it and hopefully they’ll use this time to address the community’s concerns.”
Bulloch County NAACP President Pearl Brown said, “I feel that this was the best thing to do.”
Mayor Bill Hatcher could see nothing wrong with the map drawn up by Wood and McCorkle.
“I still think it’s a viable good plan,” said Hatcher. “Now, a citizen has two voices out of six. If we go with this plan, I like that each person would have a voice (in electing) four out of six council seats.”
Cam Lewellen is the president of the College Student Association, a group that helped register over 2,000 student for the city council elections last fall. He said the decision was the right thing to do.
“We’re going to have to redraw the lines in 2010. Also, we’re going from two minority district to one and the percentage increase in the one district was not what it could be,” said Lewellen. “This was obviously not something that was right. Since (Lewis’) particular seat doesn’t come up until after the census, it doesn’t make any sense right now.”
During the meeting, Chance was visibly upset at that none of the other councilmen were notified an actual map was being drawn up for consideration at the council’s work session.
“We should have all been aware of everything that had been going on. This had been worked on for over a month before it was presented to us (at the work session),” said Chance. “I’m not blaming Gary Lewis, but if Gary was notified about this, then we should have all been notified.”
When Chance asked about Lewis’ concerns prior to the work session, officials said the subject would be discussed at the work session.
“There was no ‘Travis, we already have a map. If you want to come by, we’ll show it to you.’ That’s why I’m upset. We we’re being kept in the dark,” said Chance.
Chance agreed that the public was also kept in the dark and said, “I also asked if we could have a public hearing, but it was denied at the work session.”
Francys Johnson, Southeast Regional Director for the NAACP, said the city should use the time before the next census to take a longer look at the redistricting process.
“We need to take these next two years and study city demographics and put the time in to think about how we want our districts formulated as we approach the next census,” said Johnson.
He also expressed interest in the idea of increasing the number of districts in Statesboro from five to seven.
“I think that would be an excellent idea. Anything that brings more voices to the table that’s going to press for greater levels of representative democracy, these are all things that we support. Any plan that would give voice to the voice-less, we are certainly in support of it.”
More details about city council’s actions will be in Thursday’s edition of the Herald.