Department of Justice says redistricting plan unfair

Published 12:23 am Wednesday, May 2, 2012

NATCHEZ — The U.S. Department of Justice apparently has a knack for drama.

Natchez aldermen received word Tuesday — while polls were open and votes in their races were being cast — that the federal government had rejected the city’s redistricting plan.

The plan was submitted in December. The city was contacted in February for more information. A March 1 deadline for approval came and went with no word.

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Word came — on Election Day.

No one knows exactly what that word meant for Tuesday’s elections, but most officials involved said they believe it shouldn’t mean much of anything.

In late March, when the city decided to proceed with Tuesday’s planned elections based on an attorney general’s opinion, they opted to do so using existing ward lines, not the lines proposed in the new plan. Redrawing ward lines was required after the 2010 Census data showed the city’s population had shifted some.

The question now, Alderman Dan Dillard, Bob Pollard and Mayor Jake Middleton said, is about the next step.

“All I can say is that we’re going to have to go back the drawing board and see what we can figure out,” Middleton said.

The city’s redistricting consultant, Bill Rigby of Holland & Rigby said he was notified Tuesday by City Attorney Everett Sanders that the redistricting plan had been denied pre-clearance.

“Since I am not a lawyer, it is best to let the lawyer talk about the city’s options from here,” Rigby said.

Multiple attempts to reach Sanders Tuesday were unsuccessful.

In a letter to the city dated April 30, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez says the city’s explanation for proposed changes in wards was unjustified.

The city’s current redistricting plan and the proposed plan reflect three majority black wards and three majority white wards.

Opponents to the city’s plan — including three black aldermen — said the proposed plan did not account for population shifts reflected in the Census. Ward 5, they argued, should have a higher concentration of black residents.

Under the proposed plan, the black population in that ward was reduced.

Perez said in his letter that neither the original submission nor the additional information justified the changes in Ward 5.

Perez said blacks have a voting age and population majority in three wards — 1, 2 and 4.

He said the fifth ward had a 57.6 percent black population and a 52.6 percent black voting age population before being redrawn, but no black has been elected from that ward.

Perez said the new plan reduced the black population to 52.6 percent and the black voting age percentage to 46 percent in Ward 5.

He said it appears the city made both changes because blacks were on the verge of winning a fourth seat on the six-member board of aldermen.

Perez said the city’s explanation that it made changes in Ward 5 to shore up black populations in other wards was unacceptable.

Perez said the city was presented with alternatives that maintained black majorities in three wards and increased the black majority in Ward 5.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis participated in an alternate redistricting plan with the local chapter of the NAACP.

She said Tuesday night that she tried to tell the city that the city’s proposed redistricting plan was unfair and that the U.S. Department of Justice would have concerns with it.

“I told you all from the start that the justice department called us about this 10 years ago. And no one believed me,” she said.

“I was straight up with y’all. I just hate that we had to go through all this and everyone gets bent out of shape and all on a racial bent when what we said to them from the start was the truth.”

Under the NAACP plan, the city had four majority-black wards.

The Rev. Clifton Marvel, vice president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he was overjoyed to hear that the U.S. Department of Justice ruled the way it did.

“I just feel like shouting, praise God,” Marvel said Tuesday night. “I hope we can move forward from here and say justice has been done.”

Marvel said the NAACP does not believe the proposed redistricting plan approved by the city is fair to all Natchez citizens.

“It gives me some solace knowing that whichever way this goes from here, we do have the justice department on our side,” Marvel said.

Rigby said he has been a redistricting consultant for more than 20 years and has never had a plan denied pre-clearance.

“It’s a little aggravating,” he said. “I thought we had a good plan that most everybody agreed on.”

Rigby also said he did not know why it took the justice department so long to deny the plan’s pre-clearance.

Rigby said he has not heard from the justice department since they asked the city for additional information for the plan in February.

Rigby said that he did not think the city would have to go back through the entire redistricting process.

He said the city would more than likely only need to specifically address the problems the justice department found with the plan.

But Pollard said he was angry that the city paid for redistricting consultant services and spent a great deal of time redistricting all for nothing.

“We’ve spent probably $8,000 in consulting fees and spent all this time, and it means nothing,” Pollard said.

Pollard said he was not sure whether the city would continue to use Rigby as the redistricting consultant.

“That’s a good question,” Pollard said. “I want to seek professional advice; I thought we already had, but we’re just going to have to start over.”

Mathis and Ward 2 Alderman James “Rickey” Gray had expressed concerns over the hired redistricting consultant from the start.

“Now maybe somebody will believe me, and not only me, but the NAACP and the minority aldermen,” Mathis said.

The city can appeal the Justice Department’s decision to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia or redraw the wards to meet the agency’s objections.

Mathis won re-election Tuesday night, but she said before results were in that she wasn’t so sure this election would be valid.

Mathis said she’d be picking up campaign signs quickly to be ready for another election, if necessary.

The Ward 5 aldermen race was uncontested. Mark Fortebery is slated to serve another four years.