City responds to Justice

Published 11:14 pm Friday, February 24, 2012

Denouncing allegations of racial gerrymandering, the city of Suffolk on Friday filed its response to a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice sent earlier this month that requested additional information about the city’s redistricting plan.

Included with the response were letters from Vice Mayor Charles Brown and Councilman Curtis Milteer expressing disagreement, disappointment and offense at the NAACP’s assertion in a letter the organization sent to the Justice Department that they did not present coherent reasons for supporting the city plan and were coerced to go along with it by their fellow City Council members.

“As a lifetime member of the NAACP, I am deeply disappointed by the officers of the Suffolk branch of the NAACP that submitted that letter,” Brown wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “It was sent to the DOJ without a vote from the branch’s membership; and therefore, not conclusively reflective of the position and beliefs of the entire organization.”

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The process of reapportioning the city’s voters following the 2010 Census has been contentious. The city-approved plan would eliminate black Nansemond borough representatives Leroy Bennett and Thelma Hinton from the borough they represent on the City Council and School Board, respectively, as well as School Board member Diane Foster, who is white.

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.

On Feb. 6, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the city for more information on its redistricting plan.

“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,” wrote T. Christian Herren Jr., chief of the Voting Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The Justice Department requested, among other things, an explanation of the process used to adopt the plan, records from meetings where the plan was discussed and racial information for School Board members.

The 16-page letter of response drafted by Deputy City Attorney William Hutchings Jr., along with many pages of enclosures, was released by the city Friday.

It contends that black voters still are able to elect a candidate of choice in four boroughs — Nansemond, Suffolk, Whaleyville and Cypress.

According to the city’s response, the black voting-age population exceeds the white voting-age population by double-digit percentages in Whaleyville and Cypress.

In the new Nansemond borough, the black voting-age population decreased from the current plan and now is below 50 percent. However, it still is 5 percentage points higher than the white voting-age population. The minority voting-age population, including all racial minorities, is 55.7 percent.

In Suffolk, with the jail population excluded, blacks have a 50.2 percent black voting-age population, which is 2.5 percentage points higher than the white voting-age population.

The letter also presents evidence that whites in Suffolk have supported black candidates in the past, judging by past landslide victories in majority-white precincts for black candidates running against white candidates.

Finally, the letter asserts that alternative plans submitted by the NAACP and Councilman Leroy Bennett were not legally viable, because they split neighborhoods and relied on private dirt roads and other non-standard features for several boundaries.

The letter also points out that the city manager, her chief of staff and her chief information officer, who all helped draft the plan, are black, as are two members of City Council who voted for the plan.

“To draw any inferences of discriminatory intent or purpose would require the Department of Justice to conclude that all of these African-American public officials intentionally sought to discriminate against African-American voters within the city,” the letter states.

A footnote to the letter also states that Bennett voted against the plan, because his residence would be located outside the boundaries of the Nansemond borough, which he currently represents.

“He never asserted, however, that the 2011 plan would reduce the ability of minority voters to elect their preferred candidates,” the footnote states.

The letter asks for expedited consideration because of a June 12 filing deadline for City Council and School Board candidates, who must collect signatures in order to be on the ballot.

Suffolk-Nansemond NAACP President Lue Ward said Friday night that he could not comment on the letters, because he had not seen them.