Bennett supporters turn out

Published 10:21 pm Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Supporters of Councilman Leroy Bennett packed City Council chambers Wednesday night to protest the working map developed by the city for redistricting.

Dozens stood when Bennett asked them to do so at the end of the meeting. A preliminary map revealed last month draws Bennett out of the Nansemond borough he has represented for 15 years.

Many decried the fact that only one map was developed and that no citizen input went into its development. A series of community meetings begins on Tuesday.

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“I’m dismayed that this process has gotten this far without citizen participation,” Paul Gillis said during the meeting.

Clinton Jenkins, the vice president of the Suffolk chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said it was the first time he could remember that multiple maps were not presented.

“Removing a minority candidate from office, that is regression,” he said.

Sherry Hunt, the city’s chief of staff, said the redistricting process thus far has complied with the law and with the direction given to staff by City Council.

“The development of the working map was a totally objective process,” she said.

The city’s proposed plan, according to Suffolk officials, preserves its current racial split, which is three districts composed mostly of minorities, three districts composed mostly of white voters and one district that is a toss-up.

Hunt said the preliminary map had been developed by using the city’s Geographic Information System database and districting software developed by the California-based Esri company.

The city started with a map of the old boroughs and downloaded Suffolk’s 2010 census information. The system analyzed the populations and adjusted the lines to produce boroughs that were close to the target population of about 12,084 — one-seventh of the city’s population. The legal department then approved the proposed map before it was distributed, Hunt said.

None of that stopped Bennett’s supporters from coming to the microphone on Wednesday night.

“I oppose the map that was drawn,” said Lue Ward, president of the Suffolk NAACP chapter. “There are a couple of red flags in that plan.”

He said he believes the districts can be redrawn so that Bennett maintains his seat.

Indeed, an alternate plan that keeps Bennett in place already has been developed. Mayor Linda T. Johnson and other council members spent part of the meeting urging any citizen who wants to develop a map to do so and submit it to city staff.

Clarence Russell, a local pastor, said he has lived in three other cities and never seen another council representative work as tirelessly on behalf of his constituents.

“He has been a tremendous asset to our community,” Russell said. “We are entreating the council to consider another drawing that will keep Councilman Bennett.”

During his comments at the end of the night, Bennett thanked those who had spoken on his behalf.

The City Council voted to set a public hearing for Oct. 5 to receive comment on the plans. In addition, public information sessions are set for the following dates, times and places:

  • Chuckatuck — Kings Fork High School, Aug. 23, 6 p.m.
  • Holy Neck — Lakeland High School, Aug. 25, 6 p.m.
  • Cypress — East Suffolk Recreation Center, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
  • Suffolk — Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, Sept. 8, 6 p.m.
  • Nansemond — Nansemond River High School, Sept. 13, 6 p.m.
  • Sleepy Hole — Creekside Recreational Center at Creekside Elementary School, Sept. 15, 6 p.m.
  • Whaleyville — Health & Human Services Building, Sept. 20, 6 p.m.