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Mystery overshadows public hearing

Anyone who believes an effective government requires open communication and a vigorous public debate of ideas should be ashamed at what happened in the Natchez City Council Chambers Thursday evening.

Instead of a public discussion about how residents will vote in the next 10 years, the public hearing on redistricting was filled with acrimony, accusations and an alternate redistricting plan that no one would confess submitting to the city for adoption.

Yet, three of the alderman on the board admitted to at least participating in its formation. After continued interrogation from alderman Dan Dillard, aldermen James “Rickey” Gray and Ernest “Tony” Fields and alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis acknowledged Thursday night they had knowledge of and contributed to the development of the alternate plan that would effectively increase the number of black majority wards from three to four.

Members of the Natchez chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People admitted to having reviewed the alternate plan before Thursday evening’s meeting, but they did not take responsibility for submitting it to the city.

“What we are trying to do is get a map drawn that reflects the 2010 census,” alderman Fields said. “This was not a secret deal.”

All the while, a mystery map that no one claimed stood between the public and aldermen lobbing questions and accusations at one another.

When Dillard questioned why Mathis copied Gray and Fields and not Dillard, Mathis responded, “I wouldn’t dare list you on anything I hadn’t already talked to you about.”

This sort of pettiness from both sides continued for nearly an hour.

“It looks like there has been an investigative hearing instead of a redistricting hearing,” former mayor Phillip West said toward the end of the hearing.

He was right. Many of the objectives and questions raised by Mathis and other supporters of the mystery plan deserve to be discussed in a public forum. They make valid points that should be discussed and debated.

Anyone, including members of the board, has the right to submit their own ideas and their own plan. The right to do so should not be questioned.

When another round of redistricting begins ten years from now, the same questions of how to create a district map that reflects the racial makeup of the city will remain — especially if the city continues to add blacks and lose whites.

Should the city’s wards reflect the numbers in the current census? Of course it should. But how to get there deserves a long hard discussion, not a plan e-mailed at the last minute, without an owner and without public examination.

“It should be done in an open forum so the public can witness the debate,” Dillard said Thursday evening. “It is when you meet in private, when it becomes a problem.”

“What is the big deal?” aldermen Gray responded. “It is just all part of the game.”

“No, it is all part of the public hearing process,” consultant Bill Rigby said.

It was part of the process that was missing Thursday night.

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-2540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.