A packed house of Craven County residents spilled into the hallway outside the Craven County Board of Commissioners room Monday night, listening and speaking on a proposed county redistricting plan. The redistricting plan could create the first new districts in 20 years.
Commissioners said they would consider the comments, wait until the return of Commissioner Theron McCabe from the National Association of County Boards of Commissioners convention, and again consider the plan they have put together, probably at the 8:30 a.m. March 18 meeting.
While they had different views on the current maps, two former commissioners, Democrat Perry Morris and a Republican Chuck Tyson, both commended the board for finally addressing the complicated process for which even the boards on which they sat “kicked the can down the road.”
Commissioners Scott Dacey said the effort toward reapportionment of the seven districts has been under way for nine months and the goal is to complete the plan by Sept. 30 so the districts may be used in the 2014 elections.
“As many of you know, several of the existing districts are significantly out of balance,” he said. That imbalance effectively denies voters in some districts from having a vote equally weighted to those in others, he said.
Marshall Hurley, Greensboro redistricting consulting attorney, said the process of drawing county districts to fairly represent one man, one vote includes creating equal population while respecting minority voting rights. The process also aims to make the districts as compact as possible with realistic boundaries that don’t unnecessarily divide communities, according to Hurley.
Craven County NAACP President Marshall Williams said,
“One of the missions of the NAACP is to ensure political equality of rights for all persons,” said Marshall Williams, Craven County NAACP president.
He said that he had spoken to Dacey and commissioners Steve Tyson and Johnnie Sampson about the redistricting maps and about “why so many of residents have many concerns, apprehension, and mistrust in the process.”
“It appears the proposed maps are straddling the fence of fairness, but leaning on the side of dominance, so many residents believe in possible gerrymandering to assure political majority and diluting any opposition,” Williams said.
“While having maps available is helpful, they need the data used to draw them. It’s hard to have an informed, intelligent discussion when you are only looking at maps alone; I shouldn’t have to inquire with an attorney to be able to understand what the proposed maps meant statistically, and their intrinsic implications. Make the process as transparent as possible.”
Craven County Democratic Party Chairman Rachel Parnell said that was the information for which she was also searching.
“Point well taken,” Dacey said, and distributed copies and put up on a screen the demographics of current and proposed districts, none of which deviates more than 1.43 percent from a goal average of 14,786 residents.
The data presented and expected to be posted on the county website cravencounty.com, show districts 1 through 5 still have more registered Democrats than Republicans, although Republicans now hold five of the seven commission seats.
Dacey said proposed district boundaries also conform more closely to local precinct lines and keep communities together.
Since Craven County is among the 40 N.C. counties requiring pre-clearance by the U.S. Justice Department for any district changes, Dacey said, “We needed to make certain the rights of minorities have not been compromised with any new plan.”
Minority District 3 Commissioner Johnnie Sampson said he had accepted the fourth revision of the maps and didn’t like the way subsequent maps affected District 5.
District 5 served by Commissioner McCabe and proposed districts 3 and 5 both have a slightly larger percentage of black voters than present districts, although District 5 never had a black voting majority.
Hurley said the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires increased scrutiny of Craven County district lines with a goal to create two minority districts.
“The goal is not to regress,” he said.
Tyson said the districts now “are so out of kilter that any citizen could probably go to court and overturn an election. I hope we can get this done for the 2014 election so we won’t have a potential lawsuit hanging over us.”
Although the residences of Morris of Vanceboro and former District 1 commissioner Jason Jones of Cove City, both present Monday, were both drawn into the same district, Morris said his concern was that the number of times the maps were redrawn showed too much politics creeping into the process.
District NAACP President Alfred Barfield said that all commissioners had agreed on the fourth set of maps and “if the chain is strong, don’t break the links. I’m not talking about color. I looked at the maps and don’t like what I saw. Politics is dirty.”
Morris said, “One map went through my back yard and the map changed three days later to include my house.”