City Staff has of late been attempting to formulate an equitable method of redistricting the City’s voters. Like other State and local governments across the United States, every ten years Leesburg is required to redistrict in accordance with the most recent census data. The process affects only the three single-member districts and the commissioners elected from those districts; it does not affect the two at large commissioners.
The process is guided by two principles which sometimes conflict. The first is the one man, one vote rule which specifies that the three districts must be composed of approximately one-third each of the City’s voting population. That arises from general federal election law of long standing. The other guiding principle emanates from a 1985 consent decree in a federal lawsuit against the City, which initially led to the establishment of the three single-member districts. That decree recognized that in its initial format, the system utilizing two at large commissioners and three single-member districts produced one district having a black population of 64%. The decree recognized that redistricting could alter this percentage and imposed a somewhat vague standard for determining whether any such alteration would comply with the decree:
“Any alteration of the boundaries shall ensure that the changes do not lead to a retrogression in the position of minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral process...”.
This did not create much of a problem in the year 2000 redistricting. Although the percentage of black population in District 2 fell to 55.98%, District 2 was still a black majority district. However, due to annexations and the integration of black residents into what were formerly white neighborhoods, despite considerable effort to do so, staff has not been able to come up with a black majority district as such. Staff has instead proposed four alternatives which I will outline below.
Under Alternate 1, each of the three single-member districts would contain approximately one-third of the total city population, but the black percentage in District 2 would be reduced to 40.55 %. I regard that as insufficient under the consent decree in that it would tend to cause a substantial retrogression in the position of the black population with respect to the electoral process. Alternative 2 creates a District 2 in which the black population is 45.42%, while Alternative 3 creates a black population of 46.58% in District 2. I will discuss the fourth alternative below because it is entirely different and requires separate consideration.
While at first blush it might be tempting to seize on Alternative 3, which affords the highest black population in District 2, there is a problem with that alternative insofar as the one man, one vote rule is concerned. Under Alternative 3, District 1 would have 32.11% of the total city population, District 2 would have only 31.06%, and District 3 would have 36.82%. I fear the disparity between the total population in District 2 and District 3 would open the City up to a lawsuit under the one man, one vote rule which could overturn the redistricting on that basis. This leads us back to Alternative 2, which meets the requirements of the one man, one vote rule, and is only slightly over 1% different insofar as the black population within District 2 is concerned. Still, Alternative 2 has a serious drawback.
The way Alternative 2 is drawn currently, it would place Commissioner Puckett within District 2. This would require him to run against either one of the sitting at large commissioners, or against Commissioner Christian, who represents District 2 currently. Because Alternative 2 appears to be the most attractive of the three options presented so far, staff has discussed a possible solution but did not wish to proceed with it until it is blessed by the City Commission.
The proposal would be to excise Terrace Green, the subdivision in which Commissioner Puckett resides, from District 2, and place it back in District 3. In view of the fact the City may be required to justify its redistricting plan to the federal court if challenged, it would be necessary to determine the effect this would have on the black percentage within District 2. Unfortunately, the census data as provided by the federal government is not broken down sufficiently to allow that to be determined from the census alone. The City would have to conduct its own investigation of the electors residing within Terrace Green to determine how many black voters, if any, would be removed from District 2 as a result. Staff anticipates doing this first by a direct mailing to each resident in Terrace Green, requesting that they respond by providing the number of persons over the age of 18 residing in each home, along with the ethnic classification of each, utilizing the same breakdown as the United States Census. For those who failed to respond, staff would follow up by a door-to-door inquiry, to obtain the most accurate and complete information possible. It could then be determined how many black voters are removed from District 2 by transferring Terrace Green to District 3, and what effect that would have on the black voting percentage within District 2. If the effect is minimal or non-existent then that would seem to be the best of the three alternatives. If, on the other hand, taking Terrace Green out of District 2 and placing it in District 3 would have a substantial effect on the black percentage within District 2, the Commission would either have to choose Alternative 1 or Alternative 3, recognizing that both have drawbacks and would be subject to challenge under one of the two guiding principles enunciated previously, or select the fourth alternative.
The fourth alternative would be to amend the City Charter to provide for five single-member districts. Doing this would allow creation of a northwest district in which the black percentage would be 50.35%, just above a bare majority. Legally, I consider the difference between Alternative 2 as outlined above, and the creation of five districts, to be mostly insignificant as far as the black population in a given district is concerned. Both alternatives fall well short of the 64% black population in District 2 at the time of the 1985 consent decree, and the current 55.98% black population in District 2. Still, it is a slight improvement in that it does create a bare majority of black population of voting age within the district. However, there are substantial impediments to the implementation of the fourth alternative creating five single-member districts.
The biggest is that it would require a referendum to change the City Charter, raising the possibility that the voters may reject the change. Also, it would require that a special election be held since the next general election is the primary in 2012 in which these changes are supposed to be implemented already. The City Clerk is attempting to ascertain what the special election would cost and will provide that information to you when it becomes available.
Furthermore, the current system of three single-member districts and two at large commissioners was set in stone by the consent decree so the change would require federal court approval as well. As if the fact of that alone were not enough, the logistics of initiating the process are daunting.
The consent decree was imposed in 1985. Of the three named plaintiffs in that action, who represented the class of black voters within the City of Leesburg, two are believed to be deceased and one no longer lives here (that being former Mayor David Connelly). Furthermore, I do not know if the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs in the action are even alive or still practicing. Based on their ages at the time I would not be surprised if one or both are deceased or retired. An application to the federal court for approval would have to be served on someone so even if those lawyers or their respective firms would be willing to take on the obligation, the City would probably incur costs for their attorney’s fees for doing so, and the federal court would have to appoint new class representatives who are current residents of Leesburg within the affected class of black voters. Your enemies with respect to the creation of five single-member districts are time and money. It is a virtual certainty that the process of obtaining court approval and an affirmative vote of the electors within the City could not be completed in time to meet the deadline imposed by the Supervisor of Elections for producing the new redistricting plan. Still, it remains an option which can be explored further if the Commission favors it over the other three proposals.
At this time, staff is seeking guidance from the Commission on which of the four proposals it favors. If that turns out to be Alternative 2, the staff further seeks guidance from the Commission on the manner by which the canvassing of Terrace Green should be carried out. These are difficult decisions which will affect the City of Leesburg for the next ten years and potentially will affect at least one sitting Commissioner, so if you have any questions at all or wish to discuss the situation with me on an individual basis please feel free to contact my office and schedule an appointment to do so.
INFORMATION FROM CITY CLERK BETTY RICHARDSON: