Redistricting decision delayed again

Published 9:48 pm Monday, April 30, 2012

A decision on the city’s redistricting plan has once again been delayed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Additional information provided to the federal agency on April 9 restarted the 60-day review period under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, according to a letter from T. Christian Herren Jr., chief of the voting section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to the letter, an April 3 telephone conversation was held with Victor Williamson of the Department of Justice, in which Deputy City Attorney William Hutchings was notified that electronic election returns provided in response to an earlier request for additional information were incomplete.

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In an April 9 phone call, Hutchings confirmed the voting age population figures for Southside and Whaleyville precincts were inaccurate and provided the correct population numbers during the call, according to the letter.

The Justice Department now has another 60 days from April 9 to review the city’s proposed plan.

“After numerous conversations with the DOJ by legal staff of the city of Suffolk, this notice came without warning,” city spokeswoman Debbie George said in a release issued Monday. “The city was surprised and appalled to learn only after the sixty day review date expired that any responses to DOJ’s questions would trigger an additional 60 day review period.”

The situation is creating a time crunch for candidates who would like to be on the ballot for City Council and School Board elections this fall. There is a filing deadline of June 12, and would-be candidates must collect signatures in order to be listed on the ballot.

The city had to redraw its borough boundaries after the 2010 census showed nearly 33-percent population growth in the city, which was largely concentrated in the northeastern quadrant. That meant those boroughs had to become smaller, and others larger, to maintain approximately the same number of residents — a target of 12,084 in each borough.

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.

The Justice Department sent a letter on Feb. 3 asking for additional information on the city’s voting districts approved by City Council. The city responded on Feb. 24 and has been waiting since then for a response until the most recent letter came.

Members of City Council whose seats are up for election this year — Mayor Linda T. Johnson and Councilmen Bennett, Curtis Milteer and Robert Barclay — did not return phone calls Monday.

“The city of Suffolk is evaluating all possible options to advance the redistricting process for the city and its citizens,” George wrote in the release.