City redistricting plan approved

Published 11:58 pm Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Council selects controversial redistricting map

Suffolk City Council voted Wednesday to pass a modified version of the original working map that city staff developed to redistrict the city’s boroughs.

After hearing 29 speakers who opposed the city’s map, including some who accused the City Council members of racism and said the map was a return to Jim Crow laws, the members voted 7-1 to approve the modified map.

If the plan passes muster with the U.S. Department of Justice, Councilman Leroy Bennett would be ineligible to run for re-election in the Nansemond borough next year, but could run in Cypress in 2014.

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“I’m very proud of the 15 years I have served the people of the city,” Bennett said before the vote was taken. “I have faith, I have integrity, and I believe. I can sit here with a smile on my face.”

School Board members Diane Foster and Thelma Hinton also would be drawn out of their districts under the approved plan.

But some speakers Wednesday night assured the City Council that the Justice Department would not approve of the map.

“I can tell you, the plan you are considering is going to raise a red flag,” said Bob Kengle of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “I think it’s very likely there will be an objection.”

Kengle worked at the Justice Department for 20 years but cautioned that he does not speak for them anymore. He said one of the biggest problems he sees with the map is the decrease in the black share of the voting-age population in certain boroughs.

He also said the Justice Department would be looking for evidence of intentional discrimination, whether against incumbents or groups of voters.

The city had to redraw borough boundaries after its population grew by a third in the past 10 years. Most of the growth was in the northeast quadrant of the city, meaning those boroughs had to become smaller, and others larger, to meet a target population of 12,084 in each borough.

City staff evaluated other maps — two submitted by Bennett and two by the NAACP — but determined they were not legally viable, because certain boundaries were not up to state code and because they split “communities of interest,” a criterion established by City Council.

Several speakers took issue with using “communities of interest” to evaluate the maps.

“Communities of interest is not a legal issue, it’s a political issue,” said Rudolph Wilson, who designed the maps that Bennett proposed.

Many speakers spoke in favor of Bennett and Hinton, saying they had represented their borough well and should not be removed.

Still others continued to protest the way the entire process was handled.

“Why would you not seek community input at least a year ago?” Anita Hicks asked.

As the next step in the process, city staff will be working with the registrar and Electoral Board to draw precinct boundaries and select polling places. Another public hearing on the entire plan will be held Nov. 2, with adoption of that plan recommended for Nov. 16. The plan would then go to the Justice Department.

Said Councilman Charles Parr: “If it’s not viable, we’ll go back to square one.”