Justice Department needs more info for redistricting decision

Published 8:56 pm Monday, February 6, 2012

The U.S. Department of Justice says it needs more information from the city before it can decide whether it will accept the city’s redistricting plan.

“Our analysis indicates that the information sent is insufficient to enable us to determine that the proposed changes have neither the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group,” T. Christian Herren Jr., chief of the Voting Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote in a letter to the city attorney’s office.

“Concerns have been raised that the city’s decision to decrease the black population percentage in the Nansemond Borough was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to eliminate the ability of black voters in that borough to elect a candidate of choice to the school board and city council,” he added.


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The letter was dated Friday and released by the Justice Department Monday. It requests information such as an explanation of the process the city used to adopt its plan, records from meetings where the plan was discussed and racial information for School Board members and election commissioners. After the city provides the information, it will take an additional 60 days to reach a decision, the letter says.

All localities in Virginia and other states with a history of denying suffrage to certain racial groups must obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting districts or polling places.

The city’s proposed plan would eliminate black Nansemond borough representatives Leroy Bennett and Thelma Hinton from the City Council and School Board, respectively, as well as School Board member Diane Foster.

“Most of the questions that are being asked by the Justice Department are the same questions I have been asking,” Bennett said in a phone interview Monday. “Was the plan being done in good faith?”

City Council approved the controversial plan in November despite objections by Bennett, members of the public and the Suffolk chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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.

Bennett said he hopes the Justice Department’s questions will bring additional information to light.

“It would have been so much easier if they had just done the right thing to start with,” Bennett said.

School Board member Thelma Hinton said Monday she is pleased the Justice Department has asked for more information.

“I just felt that some things were wrong,” she said. “I just felt that the Justice Department would take a stronger look.”

City spokeswoman Debbie George said the city is standing by its original plan.

“We intend to vigorously defend the city’s position and deliver to our citizens an impartial redistricting process, free of discrimination and personal agendas,” she wrote in an email. “The city believes that it is possible the DOJ was influenced by a February 1st letter to the DOJ from the Suffolk branch of the NAACP that contained unsubstantiated and misleading information as well as personal attacks on two senior members of City Council.”

NAACP Suffolk branch representatives Lue Ward, president, and Johnnie Edwards, legal redress chair, would not provide a copy of the letter, and George was unable to do so after business hours Monday.

“We just want to make sure the city comes together on a plan for all,” Edwards said. “We’re all kind of just waiting and seeing for what will come out.”

George added the city was perplexed by the request for additional information because much of it was provided with the original submission and the Justice Department had never indicated it would need more information — including during a telephone call that ended less than an hour before the letter was faxed to the city attorney’s office, she said.